Air Pollution & COVID-19

Updated: Aug 30

Environment & Health: How Climate Action Can Prevent and Reduce Future Pandemics

Image of the outer Himalayan Mountains visible from Jalandhar, Punjab, India for the first time since pre-Industrialization


If you visited Jalandhar, Punjab, India, 30 years ago, you may just have been able to see the Dhauladhar mountain range of the outer Himalayas on the horizon. That all changed with industrialization as landmarks became veiled by smog.


The good news is that the lockdown has decreased air pollution significantly around the world. The bad news is that it is likely the improvement in air quality is only temporary as industries gear up to launch full scale operations once again. Corporations like Microsoft are trying to lead by example by striving to be carbon negative by 2030, removing their historical carbon emissions by 2050, and investing a $1 Billion Climate Innovation Fund to help accelerate the development of carbon capture, reduction and other technologies that can improve air quality. City of Surrey, BC is among North America’s leaders in sustainable waste management with its biofuel facilities. Researchers at Soochow University in China are building solar panels that can harness mechanical energy from rain – so many exciting innovations to look out for!

Back to the problem: In 2012, WHO warned the world that around 7 million people were dying prematurely each year as a result of exposure to air pollution. It is the world's greatest environmental health risk. In March of this year, the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA) warned that those living in polluted cities are more at risk from Covid-19. Low air quality can result in hypertension, diabetes and other respiratory illness that lead to serious/critical risk from the novel coronavirus.

Air pollution doesn’t discriminate. It affects the young, old, healthy and sick. A recent study at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health led by Xiao Wu and Dr. Rachel C. Nethery found there were 15% higher deaths related to the novel Coronavirus for every 1 microgram/cubic meter increase in average levels of fine PM2.5 particle pollution. It was found that persons living in an area with high levels of air pollution for decades are 8% more likely to die from COVID-19 than people living in areas with lower pollution levels. The findings hold true even when considering other variables including age and health. Similar conclusions were reached in Italy by researchers of the Environmental Pollution Journal who concluded that nCovid-19 mortality rates were higher in more polluted regions of Europe.

Air pollution was highest in northern Italy before and still is after the lockdown, and northern Italy has seen the highest number of nCovid-19 cases and deaths in the country. The slow-down of serious cases and deaths in Italy has coincided with a large drop in average nitrogen dioxide concentrations in Italy due to lockdown measures. Other evidence in support of this theory includes the unexpectedly high rate of deaths and cases in London, where nitrogen dioxide is a common pollutant present in high concentrations (Fletcher & Ren, 2020).


Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Dr. Aaron Bernstein, Interim Director of The Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment has provided critical insight into the pandemic’s relationship with climate change. Dr. Bernstein believes that human activity created the conditions that allowed Covid-19 to spread quickly across the globe. He argues that the way human settlements decrease the land available for wildlife to flourish, pushes wildlife to living closer and closer. Coronaviruses are known to have originated from wildlife and with less living space, viruses spread faster among animals and spread to humans when the sick animals came into contact with people. Should humans attempt to reverse our domination of nature and strive for balance, we can prevent and/or reduce future outbreaks.

Wildlife crossing bridge on the Trans-Canada Highway in Alberta (Photograph by Joel Sartore, Nat Geo Image Collection)


The more serious implication is that the virus may be airborne. Canadian Pediatrician Dr. Pargat Singh Bhurji believes that structures with high quality air circulation and UV light air filters would best help to prevent spreading. Now picture this in your mind: A city with mixed-use high-rise buildings, townhomes, as well as single-family homes. No homes are left unused and vacant for speculation purposes. The structures are resistant to natural disasters that could affect the local region. Families prefer to live together especially with aging parents. No one builds homes larger than their needs and no one has more children than they can provide for. Major roads have wildlife crossing bridges above and/or below for animals to cross without fearing being hit by cars and losing living space. Such a settlement would provide the maximum possibility to prevent/reduce disasters and pandemics in future. Its air quality and natural beauty of the environment would be preserved for generations to come.

However, countries like Czech Republic, and even the virus’ original epicenter Wuhan City in China are rapidly relaxing lockdown measures (Fletcher & Ren, 2020). Masks are still a great idea when indoors in social settings as the earliest possible date for a vaccine to become available for the mass public is estimated to be December 2020. Vancouver Infectious Diseases Centre's Dr. Brian Conway reports that alcohol is the #1 risk factor to trigger a disastrous second wave. Alcohol is known to weaken immunity, impair judgement and even cause people to talk louder and spit while talking without knowing. Recent studies have shown alcohol to negatively impact health even when consumed in moderation (Rise, 2020 and Ives, 2018).


In conclusion, whether you are an author, artist, architect or engineer, investor, policymaker, teacher, storyteller or volunteer, each and every person has a role to play in creating awareness about the importance of the preservation of nature. Little steps add up to make a big difference. Sustainability is a shared responsibility, so let’s get to work!

Author: Jashan Singh Randhawa Environment & Health Project team members include Prabh Singh Sandhu, Finn Birk & Trishant Singh Gill

Sources:

Bannerjee, N. (2020) Q&A: A Harvard Expert on Environment and Health Discusses Possible Ties Between COVID and Climate. Inside Climate News. Fletcher, E.R., Ren, G. (2020) Significantly More COVID-19 Deaths Are Occuring In US Communities With Higher Air Pollution Levels. Health Policy Watch. Ives, L. (2018). No alcohol safe to drink, global study confirms. BBC News. Ries, J. (2020) How Alcohol Can Affect Your Immune System. Healthline. Date: May 5, 2020 Updated: August 21, 2020