Air pollution kills 7 million people a year - and probably makes COVID-19 more deadly: this week's World Vs Virus podcast

Environmental activists rally to demand rights to clean air, near the Thai Government House in Bangkok, Thailand, as the country struggles to contain worsening air pollution January 23, 2020. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun - RC2GLE9WQDW6

Anti-pollution protestors in Thailand in January. Image: REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

Robin Pomeroy
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“The evidence we have is pretty clear that people who have been living in places that are more polluted over time, that they are more likely to die from coronavirus.”

That's the stark assessment of Aaron Bernstein, the director of the Center for Climate, Health, and Global Environment at Harvard University.

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Researchers in Cambridge came to a similar conclusion, with a study that found more cases of COVID-19, and resulting deaths, in areas of England with high levels of air pollution.

While the studies are ongoing, the initial findings come as no surprise to Maria Neira, an expert on air pollution at the World Health Organisation.

"We cannot prove any correlation between air pollution and the mortality caused by COVID-19, but it's clear that, if you smoke or if you are exposed to air pollution for a long time, your lungs will be more vulnerable and you will be more vulnerable to any type of respiratory diseases," Neira told this week's World Vs Virus podcast.


"So more studies will be needed. What we know for sure is that air pollution is already killing 7 million people prematurely people around the world. Therefore, no matter what, we have to tackle the causes of air pollution.

The policy recommendations from all of those studies will be: tackle the causes of air pollution, reduce air pollution, increase the quality of the air you breathe ... this is what I call a 'no-regrets' investment. because we need to do it."

There are two consequences of the pandemic that might mean those investments - in cleaner transport and energy, for example - are more likely to happen.

One is the 'Great Reset': as governments have to invest to rebuild their economies, they have a chance to make better choices.

"I will push enormously for all of those stimulus packages to go in the right direction, to make sure that the healthy and green transition is in place," Neira said.

Hear the Great Reset podcast:


The other consequence of COVID-19 is that lockdown has meant many people in big, polluted cities - New Delhi for example - have enjoyed clean air for the first time in their lives, and would strongly prefer not to go back to how things were. And that should mean stronger public support for measures to reduce pollution.

A combo shows the India Gate war memorial on October 17, 2019 and after air pollution level started to drop during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to slow the spreading of Coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in New Delhi, India, April 8, 2020. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis/Adnan Abidi - RC2E0G948GG1
New Delhi before and after lockdown. Image: REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis/Adnan Abidi

Anti-pollution group the Clean Air Fund commissioned an opinion poll that quizzed more than 1,000 people in each of five countries: India, Nigeria, Britain, Poland and Bulgaria, on their views on air pollution. In all of them, a huge majority said they were concerned and wanted more action to clean up the air.

Percentage of people who support tougher action against air pollution. Image: Clean Air Fund

"This is a clear mandate for ... politicians to make sure that, at the very least, economic stimulus does not increase air pollution," Clean Air Fund Executive Director Jane Burston told World Vs Virus.

"But at the same time, (it's) a huge opportunity to do quite the opposite and decrease pollution and to create much more resilience, both for individuals, countries and the health system."

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