A new study published in The Lancet Planetary Health reports that pandemic-enforced lockdowns in China and Europe have actually saved tens of thousands of lives – not from the coronavirus, but from air pollution. The study comes from scientists at the University of Notre Dame who found that particulate matter concentrations in China fell by an astounding 29.7%, and by 17.1% in certain regions of Europe during the early months of the pandemic.
"We look on these lockdowns as the first global experiment of forced low-emission scenarios," said corresponding author Paola Crippa, who is an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences at Notre Dame. "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."
Air pollution is a serious threat to public health in many parts of the world and is currently estimated to be the leading environmental cause of death. PM2.5 air pollution comes from industrial emissions, transportation, wildfires and chemical reactions of pollutants and is linked with premature death associated to lung cancer, ischemic heart disease, stroke and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases. In 2016, the World Health Organization attributed air pollution to 4.2 million premature deaths globally.
In conducting their research, the team used computer simulations to analyze the effects that different lockdown scenarios had and could have on premature deaths from air pollution. "The most surprising part of this work is related to the impact on human health of the air quality improvements," Crippa said. "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."
Combining epidemiology, environmental engineering, statistics and philosophy, this study aimed to act as a call to arms for interdisciplinary fields to develop more effective air quality policies. Noting the risk perception between the urgent crisis of the coronavirus pandemic versus the ongoing crisis of hazardous pollutants in the atmosphere, Crippa commented:
"In China, we saw that lockdowns implied very significant reductions in PM2.5 concentrations, which means that policies targeting industrial and traffic emissions might be very effective in the future," Crippa said. "In Europe, those reductions were somewhat smaller but there was still a significant effect, suggesting that other factors might be considered to shape an effective mitigation strategy."