Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) COVID-19 has affected all industries. The global travel, hospitality and tourism industry is one of those most affected since social distancing and working from home is not an option. Most cities worldwide are on lockdown and 90% of flights grounded. Local and foreign travel has come to a standstill. Even crime rates have fallen.1 This pause in major industrial activities and transportation has resulted in an unprecedented decline in air pollution.
WHO states that older people and people with pre-existing medical conditions (such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease) appear to be more vulnerable to becoming severely ill with the virus.2
Poor air quality weakens human immune systems, causing respiratory and cardiovascular related diseases. These make people susceptible to COVID-19 symptoms.
Air pollution is the principal environmental health threat linked to 8.8 million deaths in 2016.3 In 2019, only 19 countries met the WHO air quality guidelines. The United Kingdom was not one of these countries.4
Primary gases and solids involved in air pollution: –
- Oxides of nitrogen (NOx) include nitrogen dioxide (NO2)
- Sulphur dioxide (SO2)
- Carbon monoxide (CO)
- Ammonia (NH3)
- Volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) does not include methane
- Particulate matter (PM) – diameter in micrometres (10, 2.5, 1.0 & 0.1)
Overall air pollution can cause skin irritation, nausea, nerve damage, respiratory illnesses, fatigue and cardiovascular diseases.
Fine particulate matter (PM2.5) is the most harmful pollutant to human health.
Sources, impacts and health effects of (PM2.5, SO2, NOx, VOC’s and NH3) pollutants that affect air quality. Click on each image to enlarge. Original Design by DEFRA Digital Comms.5
Source of Pollutants
- Agricultural activities produce ammonia and methane emissions.
- Energy production and distribution liberate sulphur dioxide emissions.
- Natural phenomena, such as ash cloud, release various pollutants into the air.
- Landfills and coal mining emit methane.
- Road transportation release of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter.
- Fuel combustion from transportation, households and businesses cause particulate matter and carbon monoxide emissions.
- Smoking exacerbates respiratory problems.
- Allergens (including pollen) constrict breathing and eye irritation.
- Vehicles and domestic boilers emit carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide, intensifying respiratory illnesses.
- Mould and bacteria grow in damp conditions, causing allergies and asthma.
- Chemicals to clean the house irritate the skin and can lead to cancer.
- Inhalation of radon gas can cause lung damage and cancer.
Even though, other pollutants that can enter the environment via water and soil contamination. Air pollution is the main global environmental health threat.
Cost of Air Pollution
The cost of air pollution across the world is staggering. In England alone, it’s estimated that the costs of air pollution to the NHS and social care was £157 million in 2017. By 2025 Public Health England (PHE) expect this cost to rise to £5.56 billion. PHE warns that by 2035 these costs could be £18.6 billion.7
taking advantage of Low Air Pollution Post COVID-19
The world now breathes cleaner air. How do we sustain this?
#BreatheLife states that 91% of people worldwide do not breathe safe air. Similar to the coronavirus, air pollution does not respect borders. The COVID-19 pandemic displays our global connection. Countries such as New Zealand, Finland, Canada and Estonia already take a lead in combating air pollution. These nations are regularly on the list of top 10 countries that surpass WHO air quality guidelines.
Every country must opt-in and take part in improving air quality for the greater good.
Partnership Between Governments and the Public
International cooperation is crucial to address global air pollution.8
Viable AlternativEnergy proposes that governments and business should follow “as low as reasonably practicable” ALARP Health, Safety and Environmental (HSE) risk management practices.9 To ensure that suitable controls are in place to reduce the HSE risks to employees and the public.
TRANSPORTATION must prioritise cleaner, low emission fuels with reduced sulphur content. Buses running on biogas or biodiesel from cooking oils are common in Europe.
CITIES must strategically plan safe pedestrian zones, create green spaces and improve urban waste management. Reduce ground ozone and increasing oxygen from trees. Provide a safe place for physical activity and mental respite, relaxation and restoration. Furthermore, divert urban waste from disposal to recovery routes.
HOMES must be energy efficient through insulation and design. Domestic cooking must use cleaner fuels, avoiding solid fuels and kerosene.
WASTE MANAGEMENT must abide by the waste hierarchy. Prevention by streamlining the design/manufacturing process and using less hazardous alternatives. Re-use entails repairing/refurbishing whole items or spare parts. Recycle converts of waste into a new substance or product. Recovery includes energy or products from waste, incineration (waste to energy) and anaerobic digestion. Disposal comprises incineration (without recovery) or landfill.
Where Businesses Can Lead
AGRICULTURE must refrain from burning fields and apply low emission techniques when injecting ammonia into the ground. Furthermore, capture and reuse methane gas emitted from manure and agricultural waste sites.
The heavy INDUSTRY must adopt cleaner technologies that factor in emissions, plant downtime and human behaviour/error possibilities. Therefore, lowering the severity of major accidents and incidents.
OIL and GAS exploration and production plants must capture, compress, reuse or sell recovered flared gases. Reduce emissions, improving community relations as well as noise and light pollution.
POWER GENERATION must tap into clean energy such as solar, wind and geothermal. We recommend nuclear energy when rigorous risk assessment and mitigation are in place. Additionally, where waste disposal funds are earmarked for the plant’s lifespan and custodian rights are clearly defined for the spent fuel.
Multiple collaborations such as these will promote economic development, improve health and reduce pollutants.
Clearer Cleaner Future
Over the past 18 years, the world has experienced several respiratory illnesses caused by the same family of viruses called coronavirus (SARS, MERS and COVID-19).
Looking forward, we must improve air quality to reduce the underlying illnesses that make people vulnerable to respiratory diseases. There is a greater chance for success or avoidance of COVID-19 if we all start at a better air quality baseline. Better air quality is vital for improved social, economic and public health.
- Dodd V., Crime in UK falls sharply since start of coronavirus lockdown, The Guardian, Published 15 April 2020, [accessed 22 April 2020]
- World Health Organization (WHO), Does the new coronavirus affect older people, or are younger people also susceptible? [accessed 22 April 2020]
- Burnett, R. et al., Global estimates of mortality associated with long-term exposure to outdoor fine particulate matter, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115, 9592–9597 (2018), https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1803222115, [accessed 22 April 2020]
- IQAir, 2019 World Air Quality Report Region & City PM2.5 Ranking, [accessed 22 April 2020]
- UK Government Publications, Clean Air Strategy 2019, Published 14 January 2019, [accessed 22 April 2020]. Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.
- European Environment Agency (EEA), Indoor air pollution, Published 15 Apr 2013, [accessed 22 April 2020]
- Public Health England (PHE), Estimation of costs to the NHS and social care due to the health impacts of air pollution, [accessed 22 April 2020]
- World Health Organization, Ambient air pollution: Interventions & tools, [accessed 22 April 2020]
- Health and Safety Executive (HSE), ALARP suite of guidance, [accessed 22 April 2020]