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Can Coronavirus Open up Discussions on Air Pollution?

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By Ruth MacEachern

Product Manager

Mar 10, 2020

Unfortunately it is hard to escape the current epidemic gripping the world, as we are all at risk and worried as rightly so. However, a surprising knock-on effect of the COVID-19 virus is it's impact on air pollution. Coronaviruses (CoV) are a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV). A novel coronavirus (nCoV) is a new strain that has not been previously identified in humans. COVID-19 is the infectious disease caused by the most recently discovered coronavirus.

The most common symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, tiredness, and dry cough. Some patients may have aches and pains, nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat or diarrhoea. These symptoms are usually mild and begin gradually. Some people become infected but don’t develop any symptoms and don't feel unwell. Most people (about 80%) recover from the disease without needing special treatment. 

Around 1 out of every 6 people who gets COVID-19 becomes seriously ill and develops difficulty breathing. Older people, and those with underlying medical problems like high blood pressure, heart problems or diabetes, are more likely to develop serious illness. People with fever, cough and difficulty breathing should seek medical attention. 

The outbreak was first documented in Wuhan, China in December 2019 has expanded across the globe. At least 98,000 people around the world have been sickened and thousands have died. In January 2020 for the sixth time in history, the World Health Organisation declares a "public health emergency of international concern," a designation reserved for extraordinary events that threaten to spread internationally.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have advised they are still learning how the virus is spreading however it is thought to be spread mainly from person-to-person. The CDC also believe it is spread between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet). And through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.

As a result quarantines have been in affect, most notably Diamond Princess cruise ship were more than 3,600 passengers were quarantined off the coast of Yokohama, Japan, while passengers and crew undergo health screenings. The number of confirmed cases on board the ship would eventually swell to more than 700, making it one of the largest outbreaks outside of China. Additionally, a quarter of Italy's population is now in quarantine.

Everyone is being advised to self-quarantine if they suspect they have any symptoms in order to prevent the spread of the virus.

A repercussion of the virus that wasn't expected has been the effect on air pollution. There’s been a dramatic drop in pollution across China as the country tries to contain COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. New maps using data collected from NASA and European Space Agency satellites show how nitrogen dioxide, a dangerous gas released by burning fuel, has dissipated since the outbreak.

“This is the first time I have seen such a dramatic drop-off over such a wide area for a specific event,” Fei Liu, an air quality researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a statement. 

The cleaner air will hopefully provide some relief as China copes with a novel coronavirus that affects the lungs. On its own, high levels of nitrogen dioxide can inflame airways and make it harder for people to breathe. It also reacts with other chemicals to create soot, smog, and acid rain.

Even a short-term reduction in air pollution can make a difference."There is no question about it: When air quality improves, that will be associated with a reduction in health-related problems," says Jim Zhang, professor of global and environmental health at Duke University.

Zhang says that was evident during the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing. To help improve the air, government officials shut factories and dramatically limited car travel before and during the games. Levels of some air pollutants dropped by half. He and colleagues studied a group of young men and women in Beijing and found that during that time period, their lung and cardiovascular health improved.

The drop in air pollution and carbon emissions is also likely to disappear as Chinese industry ramps up again in an attempt to offset its economic losses. Of course the health impacts of coronavirus, all those afflicted and the stress and anxiety caused by the virus far outweigh the short-term benefits of improved air pollution. Unfortunately a result of self quarantine means those isolated at home and avoiding crowds may also have been exposed to more indoor air pollution.

However there is no denying the effect of reducing burning fossil fuels and it's impact on the air pollution in china. A 2015 study from the non-profit organisation Berkeley Earth estimated that 1.6 million people in China die each year from heart, lung and stroke problems because of polluted air. If self-quarantine becomes a globally enforced action it will be incredibly interesting to see the impact this has on outdoor air pollution.

Regrettably, an obvious direct result of self-quarantine means higher exposure to indoor air pollution which can be just as damaging as outdoor air pollution. Stale indoor air and heating systems can increase the amount of allergy-inducing dust mites, pet dander, and mould spores circulating through your house. The damaging effects of indoor air pollution and the awareness and understanding surrounding it are still yet to gain weight with government officials.

The Government is reluctant to heed the warning from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, which said in its recent report The Inside Story: health effects of indoor air quality on children and young people: “urgent action is needed to address the problems of poor indoor air quality. Children are potentially being exposed to harmful levels of pollutants throughout their daily lives in the buildings where they live, play and learn.”

These pollutants - for example, from building materials (almost entirely ignored by the Government even as it claims building houses is a top priority), cleaning products, toiletries, furnishings, damp, mould, cooking, wood burners and candles - cause serious respiratory illnesses, like asthma, a lifelong condition. Indoor air pollution will also cause 9,000 deaths this year alone in the UK.

It would seem however, that we are a long way off responding to the threats caused by greenhouse gases or the illnesses attributed to indoor air pollution. Nevertheless, what we can hope for is that if one thing is achieved from this tragic virus outbreak, is that more people stand up and pay attention to their surroundings, the air we breathe and how easily disease can spread.