Pena: Covid-19 and air pollution

WITH most factories on shutdown and vehicles out of the road all over the world due to lockdowns to slow the spread of Covid-19, the air has become cleaner. This was confirmed by satellite observations. Only recently, the new generation polar-orbiting satellites of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are seeing a dramatic reduction in the amount of air pollution in the United States.

The clearer sky can be observed by the naked eye. In Punjab, India, the Himalayan mountain range was now visible from miles away due to the reduction in air pollution. India is home to 21 of the 30 worst polluted urban areas in the world, according to data compiled in IQAir AirVisual’s 2019 World Air Quality Report. In Manila, the Sierra Madre Mountain Range can now be seen clearly too due to less smog in the metropolis.

With cleaner and breathable air, there are projections that there will be lesser deaths due to air pollution. According to an assessment by Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), the lockdowns have led to an approximately 40% reduction in average level of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution and 10% reduction in average level of particulate matter pollution over the past 30 days. This has resulted in 11,000 avoided deaths from air pollution (95% confidence interval: 7,000 � 21,000). This effect comes as power generation from coal has fallen 37% and oil consumption by an estimated 1/3. Coal and oil burning are the main sources of NO2 pollution and key sources of particulate matter pollution across Europe. The report can be viewed at

Microscopic pollutants in the air can penetrate deep into our respiratory and circulatory system, damaging our lungs, heart and brain. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), ambient air pollution accounts for an estimated 4.2 million deaths per year due to stroke, heart disease, lung cancer and chronic respiratory diseases. This mortality is due to exposure to small particulate matter of 2.5 microns or less in diameter (PM2.5). Compared to other causes of premature death, air pollution worldwide kills 19 times more people each year than malaria, nine times more than HIV/AIDS, and three times more than alcohol.

Air pollution is down, but its effect lingers. Those who have long been exposed to air pollution have a higher risk of dying due to Covid-19. A study comparing more than 3,000 U.S. counties found that PM 2.5 pollution is directly linked with higher Covid-19 death rates. One extra micron per cubic meter corresponded to a 15 percent jump in Covid-19 mortality, researchers at the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health reported earlier this month. Another research published in the journal “Science of the Total Environment” has found that long-term exposure to air pollution may be “one of the most important contributors to fatality caused by the Covid-19 virus” around the world. The study looked at Covid-19 fatalities in four of the countries that have been hit hardest by the virus - Germany, France, Italy and Spain.


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