07.09.20 Air Pollution, COVID-19

Recognising the UN's International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies

Dr Miranda Loh, Head of Environmental and Public Health at IOM, demonstrates the link between COVID-19 and air pollution and why on the United Nations (UN) International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies it is vital to the recognise the risk air pollution has on our future.

PHOTO:WMO Photostream/Anna Zuidema. Frosty morning in Pingjum Friesland, The Netherlands. © Anna Zuidema/WMO 2020 Calendar — 75 selected entries

Life in recent months has been dominated by concerns over Covid-19. During this pandemic, we should take time to recognise the new International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies, on 7th September 2020, established by the United Nations General Assembly at the end of 2019. This resolution affirms the importance of environmental quality, especially air quality, for human health.

The effects of air pollution on respiratory and cardiovascular diseases

While air quality may not seem a primary concern during the pandemic, there are several reasons we should not ignore its significance. As we learn more about the health impacts of Covid-19, we find that it can result in severe inflammation, damaging the lungs, but also affecting the cardiovascular system. People with pre-existing respiratory and cardiovascular afflictions may be more vulnerable to the severe effects of Covid-19.

Air pollution plays a role in the development and exacerbation of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases and can increase the risk of lung infections. While evidence has not yet clearly pointed to air pollution playing a role in Covid-19, exposure to higher levels of air pollution could be an additional risk factor.

The effects of air pollution are cumulative, and while the lockdown restrictions imposed by governments as a response to Covid-19 has reduced levels of certain pollutants in cities, much of the negative impacts on health that might make people more susceptible to Covid-19 would have occurred before lockdown.

Behavioural changes in the way we travel
At the same time, the current situation has shown us that it is possible to shift our mobility patterns to more sustainable means and thus reduce air pollution in cities. Cycling and walking are now more popular, and local Councils in the UK have put in measures to make active travel more accessible during the pandemic. The UK government has announced funding to continue to invest in these measures for a sustainable and active transport future. Encouraging active transport has the additional benefit of increasing physical activity and reducing obesity, another risk factor for Covid-19.

Air pollution and public health research
IOM has long championed air pollution and public health research. Our work has ranged from assessing the health impacts of air pollution to measuring air pollution exposures on a personal level, both in the United Kingdom and worldwide. Our global work includes examining indoor, outdoor, and personal level exposures to air pollution in Thailand (TAPHIA), India (DAPHNE), Kenya (AIR Network and Tupumue), and China (APIC-ESTEE). We are also developing citizen science projects to work with communities to engage and empower people with respect to air pollution.

We have also researched the effectiveness of face masks on protecting people against particulate matter, work which not only has relevance for air pollution but for protection against virus particles.

Our research on particulate matter and respiratory protection has been successfully translated into relevant work for the Covid-19 pandemic, by providing advice and services to test the filtration efficiency and face fit of respirators and face coverings. Furthermore, our project on evaluating interventions to reduce risk of workers from the environmental transmission of SARS-CoV-2 builds upon our work on aerosols in workplaces and the environment.

IOM’s research is closely aligned with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and highlighting International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies is essential because as we move into a management phase of the coronavirus pandemic, the world needs to pay far greater attention to air pollution to safeguard a healthy future.

The UN states ‘clean air is important for the health and day-to-day lives of people, and air pollution is the single greatest environmental risk to human health and one of the main avoidable causes of death and disease globally.’