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7th Mar 2021

Coronavirus

Air pollution drops in Europe, but how long will it last?

  • The European Public Health Alliance believes 'the damage is already done', as air pollution is a strong driver for lung and heart conditions, which are linked to higher coronavirus death rates (Photo: Damián Bakarcic)

A new set of satellite images reveal that air pollution has dramatically decreased across Europe following the coronavirus lockdown measures, which have massively curtailed flights, the movement of people and the production levels of factories.

Yet experts warned that weather conditions, such as clouds, can disrupt data of satellite observations and called on the EU to extend these research projects.

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  • Images of nitrogen dioxide emission readings, 5-25 March in 2019 versus the same period in 2020 (Photo: ESA/EPHA/James Poetzscher)

However, the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA) believes "the damage is already done", as air pollution is a strong driver for lung and heart conditions, which are linked to higher coronavirus death rates.

"There is evidence that air pollution is responsible for chronic diseases and adversely impacts immunity," EPHA policy manager, Zoltan Massay-Kosubek, told EUobserver on Tuesday (31 March).

"If you have such preconditions linked to air pollution (e.g. respiratory diseases, hypertension, diabetes etc.), you have less ability to defend yourself against Covid-19, and you are more vulnerable," he added.

Scientists are currently carrying out studies to assess the link between air pollution and Covid-19.

But a 2003 study on the victims of the respiratory disease SARS found that patients in regions with moderate air pollution levels were 84 percent more likely to die than those in regions with low air pollution.

Meanwhile, air pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide, a noxious gas emitted by cars and factories, kill an estimated seven million people worldwide every year.

'Wake up call'

The average nitrogen dioxide levels in Madrid has reduced by 56 percent week-on-week after the Spanish government imposed its nationwide lockdown, while air pollution levels in some regions of Poland remain relatively high despite the restrictions, according to the European Environmental Agency (EEA).

However, according to EEA executive-director Hans Bruyninckx, addressing long-term air quality problems requires ambitious policies and forward-looking investments.

Likewise, NGOs and civil society warned that an 'emissions surge' is likely to happen as economies recover, although the coronavirus might bring to the frontline the need to tackle the chronic air pollution problem that Europe suffers.

"We should consider this a wake up call. We shouldn't have to have had to wait for a dangerous pandemic to experience cleaner air," said Margherita Tolotto, policy officer at the European Environment Bureau.

"It's important that we already plan for a future beyond this crisis. We cannot afford to go back to business as usual," she added.

According to EPHA secretary-general Sascha Marching "cars and cities need to clean up and the EU's new zero pollution goal is the perfect reason for taking determined action to dramatically lower air pollution levels when the Covid-19 crisis is over".

With the Green Deal, the European Commission committed to improving current air quality legislation to align it more closely to the World Health Organization standards and help national authorities to reduce air pollution.

However, the EU launched 71 air-quality infringement procedures against member governments in 2019.

"The current decrease of concentrations might make people more aware of the impact that our normal activity has on the environment and more willing to adopt further measures to improve air quality once the crisis is over," said EEA air quality expert, Alberto González Ortiz.

"We must remember that environmental policy can often drive innovation and job creation, rather than hindering them," he added.

Meanwhile, health-related economic costs of air pollution is estimated between €330 and €940bn every year.

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