A visibly polluted day in Denver on Aug 20, 2018. Credit: CPR

Could reducing air pollution help mitigate the effects of the next pandemic?

Guest Post By Wayne Chuang, 2019-2020 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Atmospheric Science

The COVID-19 pandemic has already drastically changed our lives and habits, and we lay our trust with medical professionals to guide us through this difficult time. But after we contend with flattening the curve while remaining good to one another, we need to begin thinking about how to prevent, or at least decrease the severity of, the next pandemic. While a lot of attention should be paid to the costs and access of the healthcare system, investments in public health preparedness, and tending to marginalized communities, we should also consider ways that strengthen our population’s response to infections.

Based on recent research on deaths from COVID-19 in China, men appeared to have higher fatalities than women. Men may be at higher risk because around half of men smoke, whereas only 3% of women do. Smoking leads to poorer health and a weakened immune system. Men may therefore be more susceptible to infections such as pneumonia, one of the most severe complications of COVID-19. Older populations and those with pre-existing conditions are also at greater risk of dying. But while you can choose not to smoke or vape, you don’t get to choose your age, and often, you don’t have a choice in the air you breathe. And the air you breathe can cause health issues that become pre-existing diseases when a pandemic hits.

Even if you don’t smoke or vape, the activities of your community affect the air you breathe.

Photo of the 1948 Smog Event in Donora, Pennsylvania. Emissions from the local zinc plant killed 20 people and sickened over 5,000 in a town of only 14,000. Later studies found that the death rate from cardiovascular disease and cancer was significantly elevated during the event. Credit: Smithsonian Mag
Photo of Denver on March 6, 2019. The Rocky Mountains can usually be seen in the background of this skyline, but the heavy air pollution obscures it. Credit: The Denver Post and Associated Press

Air pollution has consistently been linked to diseases of the heart (cardiovascular) and lungs (respiratory). For instance, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and ozone irritate your respiratory system by inflaming airways, increasing asthma attacks and making the lungs more susceptible to infections. These pollutants also contribute to smog and decreased crop yields.  Tiny air pollution particles that are less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter (often referred to as PM2.5), or less than 1/30 the width of a human hair, are also harmful to human health. When you breathe these particles in, they are  small enough that they dive deep into your lungs and irritate your alveoli, the parts of your body responsible for absorbing oxygen and releasing carbon dioxide. Over time, these pollutants cause difficulty breathing and stress on the heart, contributing to heart disease, lung cancer, and increased susceptibility to respiratory diseases.

Nitrogen dioxide levels dropped dramatically as COVID-19 lockdowns were instituted across China and industrial and driving activities decreased. Credit: NASA
Nitrogen dioxide levels dropped dramatically in Europe, especially over Northern Italy, due to COVID-19 lockdowns. Left: Early January; Right: Early March. Credit: European Space Agency – ESA

Recent satellite images from NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) show nitrogen dioxide plummeting in China and Italy due to COVID-19-related lockdowns, demonstrating just how much air pollution is created from human activity. As lockdowns were instituted, driving and industrial activities decreased, causing a substantial drop in this pollutant. These satellites are essential for looking at changes in air pollutants like nitrogen dioxide and ozone, because they are usually invisible to the naked eye. At lower levels, particles in the atmosphere are invisible too. So although you often can’t see air pollution in the US like you would in China or India, that doesn’t mean that the air pollution levels in the US are safe. There is no safe level of pollution, and any air pollution reduction will benefit us all.

Lockdown is not required to reduce air pollution

The pictures show what happens when human activities essentially stop, but that is not necessary to reduce air pollution and reap health rewards. The United States has had major improvements in air quality since the institution of the Clean Air Act. We also have had major improvements in water quality because of the Clean Water Act. These regulations are crucial to maintaining a healthy community, one that has a better chance of fighting back when a mysterious illness spreads. We can reduce pollution in ways that do not require shutting down society. Requiring stronger emission standards in any industry–energy, transportation, industrial factories, agriculture–will spur innovation. 

To reduce emissions and air pollution in your community, you could transition to an electric vehicle and advocate for charging stations in your community to make it more convenient for others to transition.  You could use mass transit or bike as your main mode of transportation. You can vote for politicians who will protect clean air and clean water. It often takes broad government action to reduce air pollution by improving standards and making alternative options accessible.  While we have no choice in aging and other health-related issues, we can choose to be more resilient when we confront these challenges.

Additional Articles/Resources: 

There are many resources, on the local, regional, state, and national levels to learn about air pollution and improve the health of our communities. 

How Pollution Aggravates the Impact of Coronavirus

The coronavirus is deadly enough. But some experts suspect bad air makes it worse.

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