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Is Air Pollution Worse than COVID?

It is invisible, indiscriminately crosses national boundaries and is having a deadly impact on our health. Over 4 million people will die this year as a result of exposure to outdoor air pollution. To put this in context, this number is comfortably four times the current (6.9.20) Covid-19 death count (864,600). In the UK, air pollution prematurely takes between 28,000 to 36,000 lives every year. And if you happen to live in London, you are breathing air that has overtaken the EU’s annual legal limit of nitrogen dioxide within one month every year since 2007. 

What does it mean to breathe dirty air? For a start, there are established complications leading to cardiovascular, respiratory disease and cancer but thanks to new research, we now know the problem is bigger than we thought. Science has now linked poor air quality to miscarriages, dementia, heart disease and even lower cognitive performance. It seems there is scarcely an aspect of human health that is not affected by the inhalation of this invisible killer into our lungs, our blood, our brains and every other organ.

Covid19 and air pollution are different issues. But with the stark evidence in front of us, we must ask ourselves: When exactly will we take the global pollution crisis anything like as seriously as Covid-19? When thinking about this, I stumbled on a familiar news headline that read, Coronavirus: is it safe for children to go back to school?. But when a recent study concluded that “fossil fuel combustion byproducts are the world’s most significant threat to children’s health”, perhaps it’s about time we asked the same question on air pollution. Afterall, everyday thousands of kids set off to school and unknowingly expose themselves to 5 times more air pollution on the school run. This everyday commute could impact on their lifespan and contribute to serious long-term health problems, like for example the restriction of lung development.

The price of fossil fuel consumption is one paid by our lungs and in our hospitals. In a time where we need to be as resilient as possible in the face of a pandemic, this is far from ideal. Studies have already suggested that poor air quality can leave people at greater risk of contracting the virus, and at greater risk of serious illness and death. For example new research has found that even a small increase in PM2.5 concentrations of 1 microgram per cubic metre is associated with an 8% increase in the Covid-19 death rate in the U.S and as high as 16.6% in the Netherlands. 

But why are BAME populations more susceptible to Covid-19? Air pollution offers a powerful explaining factor. Ethnic minorities and deprived communities are hit hardest by air pollution and shockingly, those in deprived areas of the UK are dying from Covid-19 at twice the rate of those living in the least deprived parts. The link between air quality, social inequality and Covid-19 gives a whole new meaning to the term which has defined the Black Lives Matter movement, ‘I Can’t Breathe’. 

As well as health and inequality benefits of cleaning up our air, there are also persuasive economic arguments. For example, the UK is estimated by WHO to suffer £54 billion in economic costs associated with air pollution. That works out at 3.7% of British GDP.

Equally, a study based in the U.S has found that ditching fossil fuels would pay for itself through clean air alone. The avoided health care spending due to reduced hospitalisations and emergency room visits exceeds $37 billion, and the increased labor productivity is valued at more than $75 billion. On average, this amounts to over $700 billion per year in benefits to the US from improved health and labour alone which is far more than the cost of the energy transition.

Air pollution and Covid 19 issues are different, but share some similarities, both are invisible, care not for national boundaries, and kill. Both will also require global cooperation to fix. However, whilst Covid-19 is regularly reported, the costs of air pollution remain tragically invisible. How can it be that we live in a world where the average global citizen will die 3 years earlier due to dirty air?  If we started to take the issue seriously, we would simultaneously tackle climate change, bolster Covid-19 resilience, address inequality and even save money while doing it. We need to start talking about the air we breathe. Ultimately, it might be young people, the policy-makers of tomorrow, who change the game. But it’s also about framing, given the facts, is it really safe for children to go back to school?