WEDNESDAY, Oct. 28, 2020 — Lockdowns in China and Europe to blunt the spread of COVID-19 resulted in better air quality and thousands of lives saved, a new study finds.
Researchers found that fine particulate matter (PM2.5) concentrations dropped 30% in China and 17% in parts of Europe.
PM2.5 are tiny airborne particles that come from combustion including industrial emissions, transportation, wildfires and chemical reactions of pollutants in the atmosphere.
“We look on these lockdowns as the first global experiment of forced low-emission scenarios,” said researcher Paola Crippa, an assistant professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering and earth sciences at the University of Notre Dame, in Indiana. “This unique, real-world experiment shows us that strong improvements in severely polluted areas are achievable even in the short-term if strong measures are implemented.”
Crippa’s team used computer simulations, which included particulate matter concentrations from more than 2,500 sites in Europe and China. The team estimated rates of premature death against different economic recovery scenarios.
“The most surprising part of this work is related to the impact on human health of the air quality improvements,” Crippa said in a Notre Dame news release.
“It was somewhat unexpected to see that the number of averted fatalities in the long term due to air quality improvements is similar to the COVID-19 related fatalities, at least in China where a small number of COVID-19 casualties were reported. These results underline the severity of air quality issues in some areas of the world and the need for immediate action,” Crippa added.
From February to March, an estimated 24,200 premature deaths associated with PM2.5 were averted in China compared with 3,309 reported COVID-19 deaths, and “improvements in air quality were widespread across China because of extended lockdown measures,” Crippa said.
The situation in Europe was quite different. COVID-19-related deaths were higher in Europe compared with China, but an estimated 2,190 deaths were still avoided during lockdown compared with averages between 2016 and 2019.
The averted deaths were up to 287,000 in China and 29,500 in Europe. The study is an example of the need to control air quality, Crippa said.
Strategies to improve air quality could include subsidies to electric vehicles, prioritizing public transport and more stringent emission limitations for industries.
“If interventions of a similar scale to those adopted to address the COVID-19 pandemic were widely and systematically adopted, substantial progress towards solving the most pressing environmental and health crisis of our time could be achieved,” Crippa said.
The report was published online recently in the journal The Lancet Planetary Health.
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