Air Quality Hasn't Been This Good in Decades. How Can We Keep It This Way?

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©. Clear skies over San Francisco/ Justin Sullivan/ Getty Images

More people die from COVID-19 when they live with polluted air.

All over the world, people are shocked at the clear skies. From Vancouver, you can see mountains around Seattle. In China and India, you can see across the street. Pollution levels haven't been so low in decades. That includes levels of fine particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter, or PM2.5; a human hair is about 50 microns.

PM2.5 was barely regulated until recently; the USA didn't even have a standard until 1997 and last revised it in 2012, lowering it to an average annual limit of 12 micrograms per cubic metre (12 μg/m3) with a 24 hour standard of 35μg/m3. The EPA says there is little to no risk under 12μg/m3 and that between 12 and 35, "unusually sensitive individuals may experience respiratory symptoms." But it turns out that's not true, especially after COVID-19.

Pittsburgh smokers

Pittsburgh City Photographer Collection/Public Domain

Nobody used to pay much attention to PM2.5 when we were swimming in pollution of all kinds, like these two smokers in Pittsburgh in 1940. As Damian Carrington of the Guardian wrote, "Dirty air has been with us for centuries – previously, we simply lived with it – and no one has yet had air pollution as a cause of death on their death certificate." But as smoking levels dropped and the air got cleaner, the thinking about PM2.5 evolved.

It's now recognized that PM2.5 goes right through the lungs and into other organs. Prof Dean Schraufnagel tells Carrington that there is so much damage from it because it causes systemic inflammation.

“Immune cells think a [pollution particle] is a bacteria, go after it and try to kill it by releasing enzymes and acids. Those inflammatory proteins spread into the body, affecting the brain, the kidneys, the pancreas and so forth. In evolutionary terms, the body has evolved to defend itself against infections, not pollution.”

It turns out that there is really no safe level of pollution, and that it has a significant effect on how patients with COVID-19 react to the disease. A Harvard University study found that "an increase of only 1 μg/m3 in PM2.5 is associated with a 15% increase in the COVID-19 death rate."

Conclusions: A small increase in long-term exposure to PM2.5 leads to a large increase in COVID-19 death rate, with the magnitude of increase 20 times that observed for PM2.5 and all-cause mortality. The study results underscore the importance of continuing to enforce existing air pollution regulations to protect human health both during and after the COVID-19 crisis.
Blue sky over Milan

© Blue sky over Milan/ MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP via Getty Images

Another study from the University of Siena looked at the deaths in Italy and concluded that there was a correlation between the death rate and the pollution levels.

We provide evidence that people living in an area with high levels of pollutant are more prone to develop chronic respiratory conditions and suitable to any infective agent. Moreover, a prolonged exposure to air pollution leads to a chronic inflammatory stimulus, even in young and healthy subjects. We conclude that the high level of pollution in Northern Italy should be considered an additional co-factor of the high level of lethality recorded in that area.
Blue skies in London

© Blue skies in London/Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Of course, we all know what we have to do to reduce pollution; you just have to look out the window. Take away the gasoline and diesel-powered cars and trucks, shut down fossil fuel-burning industries, and the pollution levels drop like a stone. Akshat Rathi of Bloomberg Green writes:

The good news is that policymakers know what needs to be done: improving access to public transport, electrifying the transport fleet, raising regulations or pricing emissions on power plants and factories, and developing new technology alternatives to polluting industries, such as steel and cement. All of these measures lead to cleaner air (and lower carbon emissions).

It's easy!

©. Waugh Thistleton

© Waugh Thistleton

It's what we have been saying for years! Ban cars, build everything out of wood, build more transit, get a bike, electrify everything. And, since we know there is no safe level of particulate pollution, lower the levels allowed.

Except that's not going to happen in the USA. The EPA just announced that it was not changing the standard. According to Gina McCarthy of the NRDC,

This administration is passing up an opportunity to make the air cleaner for millions of Americans—choosing instead to do nothing. That’s indefensible—especially amid a health crisis that is hitting people who live in communities with high levels of air pollution the hardest....This reckless decision is made even more egregious coming on the heels of two big pushes to make our air even dirtier just last week—rolling back vehicle emissions standards and giving industry a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell' policy for air pollution during the pandemic. Now more than ever, our leaders should be protecting the American people, not the polluters who are making them sick.

Meanwhile, in China, Bloomberg excitedly titles a post Car Boom in Wuhan Holds Out Hope for Post-Lockdown Recovery.

If the stream of visitors to auto dealerships in Wuhan is any guide, the recovery of the car business in China and perhaps the world could be rapid. Companies in the city of 11 million, the original center of the coronavirus and the first to be sealed off, have been gradually opening their doors; officially, the lockdown there was lifted Wednesday. The strength of pent-up demand took some car dealers by surprise, with daily sales now running at levels seen before the economic freeze. “I was pretty shocked,” said Zhang Jiaqi, a sales representative at an Audi AG dealer in the Wuchang district of Wuhan, which is now recording purchases matching year-earlier levels. “It’s like a boom after a two-month dormancy. I thought sales would be frozen.”

One would hope that there would be a lesson or two to be learned from this worldwide lockdown, that not having all that pollution is really nice. That we don't have to accept the old TINA (There Is No Alternative) line.

Global estimates of mortality associated with long-term exposure to outdoor fine particulate matter

Global estimates of mortality associated with long-term exposure to outdoor fine particulate matter/CC BY 2.0

We have seen the data,showing 9 million people dying each year from PM2.5 pollution. Another study calculates that there were 103.1 million lost years of healthy life, and other studies showing a huge reduction in intelligence. "For the worst affected category, older men, the damage is equivalent to having spent a few less years in education, possibly due to inflammation of the brain. The average damage across men and women of all ages was one lost year of learning."

In the US, they are having a debate about 'how fast can people get back to work?' vs. 'how many people dying is an acceptable number?' According to Jeff Stein in the Washington Post, Conservatives are saying, "We need to open our economy TODAY to prevent a great depression." They want business as usual.

Blue skies over Los Angeles

© Blue skies over Los Angeles/ FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

Nobody would be willing to go back to Pittsburgh in 1940. People in China don't want to go back to Beijing in 2019, with some complaining, "We should apply same amount of effort we put in containing the virus into things like promoting environmentally friendly cars, sorting garbage and planting more trees.” People have learned that healthy food and clean industries are the most important things, “not money.”

I am hoping that people will look out their windows and say they don't want business as usual. That they have seen clear skies and breathed clean air, and will get behind actions that keep it that way.