Health and Healthcare Systems

11,000 deaths avoided during lockdown in Europe – thanks to cleaner air

Women wearing protective masks walk with their bikes in the park in the Porta Nuova district, as Italy begins a staged end to a nationwide lockdown due to a spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Milan, Italy May 4, 2020. REUTERS/Flavio Lo Scalzo - RC2RHG9V3TWQ

Cleaner air has improved the lives of Europe's inhabitants. Image: REUTERS/Flavio Lo Scalzo

Douglas Broom
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  • Lockdowns to fight COVID-19 have cut air pollution across Europe.
  • Nitrogen dioxide levels are 40% down on last year.
  • Researchers say 11,000 fewer people have died thanks to cleaner air.
  • Long-term air pollution makes some people more vulnerable to COVID-19.

Coronavirus lockdowns across Europe have reduced levels of some of the most harmful air pollutants by almost half, resulting in 11,000 fewer deaths from air pollution, according to a new study.

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The Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) says levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) dropped by 40% in April and particulate matter in the atmosphere was reduced by 10% during the same period.

The absence of traffic has been a major factor, but so too has a sharp drop in demand for electricity, which has led to many coal-fired power stations being taken offline. In total, coal burning to generate electricity dropped by 37%. Oil consumption declined by almost a third.

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Lockdown has changed where we get our energy from. Image: CERA

The United Kingdom (UK) generated no electricity from coal for two weeks in April, while Portugal used no coal for the whole month, CREA noted. Sweden decommissioned its last coal-fired power station two years ahead of schedule, swiftly followed by Austria, which also went coal-free.

What this pollution holiday can teach us

Set against the terrible death toll caused by COVID-19, the number of lives saved is small - but researchers say the figures provide a glimpse of what life could be like in a future that is less dependent on fossil fuels.

They predict that the pollution holiday generated by COVID-19 restrictions will also result in 1.3 million fewer working days lost to respiratory illnesses, 6,000 fewer new cases of asthma in children and almost 2,000 avoided emergency hospital visits due to asthma attacks.

The greatest projected health benefits from the lockdowns are expected to be in Germany, the UK, Italy, France, Spain, Poland and Portugal, according to the analysis.

eu europe life expectancy air pollution quality Coronavirus china virus health healthcare who world health organization disease deaths pandemic epidemic worries concerns Health virus contagious contagion viruses diseases disease lab laboratory doctor health dr nurse medical medicine drugs vaccines vaccinations inoculations technology testing test medicinal biotechnology biotech biology chemistry physics microscope research influenza flu cold common cold bug risk symptomes respiratory china iran italy europe asia america south america north washing hands wash hands coughs sneezes spread spreading precaution precautions health warning covid 19 cov SARS 2019ncov wuhan sarscow wuhanpneumonia  pneumonia outbreak patients unhealthy fatality mortality elderly old elder age serious death deathly deadly
This is how lockdowns have changed pollution levels. Image: CERA

CREA says its air-quality statistical modelling, which isolates the effects of weather and changes in emissions, shows larger reductions in particulate pollution than previously reported. It also says its methodology demonstrates the impacts of coronavirus lockdowns more clearly.

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No silver lining

“The COVID-19 crisis is resulting in widespread human suffering across Europe. Air pollution levels are plummeting as an unintended result of measures against the virus; this should not be seen as a silver lining,” writes Lauri Myllyvirta, a lead analyst at CREA.

He adds that the figures “show how normalized the massive death toll from air pollution has become”. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that more than half a million people die in Europe every year from medical conditions caused by air pollution.

According to data published by the European Environment Agency (EEA), particulate pollution alone caused over 400,000 deaths across Europe in 2016 with, NO2 pollution accounting for a further 71,000 fatalities.

Despite the health benefits of the temporary improvement in air quality from the lockdowns, CREA says that air pollution has still created extra burdens on healthcare systems during the pandemic by causing underlying conditions that make people more vulnerable to COVID-19.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2020 warned that air pollution is already costing the world more than $5 trillion in decreased productivity every year. Combined with the impact of climate change, the report concluded air pollution is challenging healthcare systems globally.

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