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Improved air quality during lockdowns saved tens of thousands of lives

In places where air pollution has a significant impact on mortality, COVID-19 lockdowns saved an incredible number of lives this year. A new study from the University of Notre Dame reveals that improvements in air quality prevented tens of thousands of premature deaths in China and Europe alone.

The experts report that during lockdowns, particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution dropped by about 30 percent in China, and by 17 percent in parts of Europe.

“We look on these lockdowns as the first global experiment of forced low-emission scenarios,” said study co-author Professor Paola Crippa. “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.”

For their investigation, the researchers combined computer simulations with measurements of particulate matter concentrations in more than 2,500 sites in Europe and China between January of 2016 and June of 2020.

Pollution-related deaths were estimated under four different economic recovery scenarios: immediately resuming normal activity and emissions, gradually resuming with a three-month proportional increase of emissions, a second wave of COVID-19 between October and December, and a permanent lockdown for the remainder of 2020.

“The most surprising part of this work is related to the impact on human health of the air quality improvements,” said Professor Crippa. “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.”

From February to March, an estimated 24,200 premature deaths from PM2.5 exposure were prevented in China – compared to 3,309 reported COVID-19 fatalities.

While COVID-19 related deaths were far higher in Europe compared to what was reported in China, an estimated 2,190 pollution related deaths were still avoided during the lockdown period when compared to averages between 2016 and 2019. 

The premature deaths avoided during lockdowns jump to as many as 287,000 in China and 29,500 in Europe when considering the long-term effects, which will depend on the pathway of economic recovery.

Professor Crippa said the study serves as an example of the need for control policies to be developed to achieve effective air quality improvements. She said the findings also highlight the issue of risk perception between the current immediate crisis of the coronavirus pandemic versus the ongoing crisis of hazardous pollution.

“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,” said Professor Crippa. “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.”

The study is published in the journal Lancet Planetary Health.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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