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Pollution levels in parts of the world have dropped dramatically due to the COVID-19 Lockdown.

Mar 23, 2020

Toxic pollution levels have dropped significantly around the world between January and March 2020. Scientists are certain the new coronavirus pandemic is a large part of the reason why.

Coronavirus hit the world late last year spreading to at least 192 countries around the world, sickening hundreds of thousands of people and killing over 14 thousand people in a matter of weeks. On the 3rd of January the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the situation a pandemic. This has since led to a “lock down” of the most affected areas of the world such as China, Iran, Italy and Spain. Other countries have also closed their shops, schools and borders to people travelling in or out of the country. The EU has also shut down all non-essential travel.

This is possibly the worst flue pandemic the world has seen in recent years, but it seems the lockdown had an unintended benefit for the environment. Due to the cleared streets, closer of businesses and economic slowdown the earth has had time to breathe and in some of the most polluted regions of the world the Air Quality has improved.

Maps shared by NASA show the decline in nitrogen dioxide emissions (NO2) over China since the quarantine measures went into effect to control the new coronavirus.

NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens

According to Stanford researcher Marshall Burke, this drop in pollution levels from a quarter to a third in some places compared to the 2019 levels has likely saved the lives of 4,000 kids under 5 and 73,000 adults over 70 in China. While he adds that the positive effects shown are just the health benefits of the air pollution changes and do not factor in the negative social and economic impacts caused by COVID-19.

Data obtained from the European Space Agency’s satellites shows that Italy has had a major reduction in nitrogen dioxide levels since the lockdown.  

Image by Santiago Gassò – a researcher at the University of Washington and NASA

Why is a reduction in pollution levels so important?

Air pollution can cause both drastic short term and long-term effects on health.

Short term exposure;

  • Aggravated cardiovascular and respiratory illness
  • Added stress to heart and lungs, which must work harder to supply the body with oxygen
  • Damaged cells in the respiratory system

Long-term exposure to polluted air can have permanent health effects such as:

  • Accelerated aging of the lungs
  • COPD
  • Loss of lung capacity and decreased lung function
  • Development of diseases such as asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, and possibly cancer
  • Shortened life span

Air quality standards were designed to protect human health and the environment. An air quality index (AQI) is used by government agencies to communicate to the public how polluted the air currently is or how polluted it is forecast to become. By continuous monitoring of the Air Quality the government can warn people of the Public health risks associated with an increase in the AQI levels.

To find out more about How the EPA and HSE link poor air quality with an increase in hospital admissions please see our related article here.

Unfortunately, improved Air Quality is not set to last. When mass production, manufacturing and daily activities get back to normal pre virus air quality conditions are said to return.  However, this pandemic has shown that the Air quality in the most polluted regions can and will improve if we can slow down human activity and reduce the greenhouse gases generated. 

If you found this article interesting and want to read more about Air Quality, please see our other articles on Is poor ventilation and bad air quality affecting your health?