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How is the COVID-19 outbreak affecting air pollution?

Scrolling through my newsfeed, every second post pays some reference to the Coronavirus outbreak, whether it be a meme, a media scare, or an article. It seemed only fitting to get amongst the action and write about it too.

COVID-19 has spread globally, and fast. The death toll in Italy has just cracked the thousands, whilst deaths in China are exceeding 3000. There’s no doubt, this is a scary time to be alive.

Map of global cases of COVID-19 as of 13/03/2020 taken from CDC website.

I was inspired to get writing when I woke up this morning and saw the recent Forbes magazine article titled Coronavirus Lockdown May Save More Lives By Preventing Pollution Than By Preventing Infection. In other words, the decrease in greenhouse gas-emitting activies (driving, flying, fossil fuel-burning, etc) due to lockdown and quarantine measures, could result in decreased air pollution.

How many deaths have occurred due to pollution and COVID-19, respectively?

ThreatNumber of deaths
Pollution7 million (globally, annually)
COVID-194955 (globally, as of 13/03/2020)

Human activities, such as driving cars and burning fossil fuels, emit large amounts of toxic pollutants and greenhouse gases. The most dangerous pollutants are particulate matter (PM), ozone (O3), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and sulfur dioxide (SO2). The accumulation of these gases in the atmosphere creates air pollution, which can cause strokes, heart disease, lung cancer and chronic respiratory diseases, such as asthma. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that “Around 91% of the world’s population live in places where air quality levels exceed WHO limits.”

So, how has the COVID-19 outbreak caused a decrease in air pollution? Across the globe, quarantine and self-isolation strategies have led to fewer cars driving, fewer factories running (as employees stay home) and fewer people flying.

You may be surprised to hear that in China alone, air pollution levels have dropped by 1/4 and nitrogen dioxide (a pollutant primarily produced from the burning of fossil fuels) levels have plummeted by 30%.

Data collected from NASAs Tropospheric Monitoring Instrument showing nitrogen dioxide pollution for the early of 2019 and 2020. Chinese New Year usually causes a ‘low’ period of NO2 production in early Feb, as businesses shut down for the celebration, but the graph for 2020 shows that after quarantine tactics were implemented, NO2 production was unusually low.

The major sources of outdoor air pollution include fuel combustion from motor vehicles, burning of fossil fuels for heat and power generation, industrial facilities (e.g. factories, mines), municipal and agricultural waste sites, waste incinerating and burning, and residential cooking, heating and lighting with polluting fuels.

With more COVID-19 cases and deaths comes a crackdown on quarantine and isolation. As a result, across the globe we’re likely to see a reduction in most of the human activities mentioned above: less cars on the road, less factories running and less people flying for work-related trips.

What are the benefits of decreased human activity due to isolation?

Outcome of self-isolationBenefit
Fewer motor vehicles on the roaddecrease in particulate matter (PM), ozone (O3), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and sulfur dioxide (SO2) and carbon monoxide.
Decreased burning of fossil fuelsdecrease in particulate matter (PM), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2)
Less commerical flyingdecrease in carbon dioxide emissions (CO2), nitrogen oxides (both of these are greenhouse gasses).
Environmental benefits of COVID-19 self-isolation and quarantine, in terms of air pollution.

There is no doubt that COVID-19 is causing devastation and heartbreak across the globe as the death toll continues to rise. The aim of this blog was to investigate some indirect effects that may arise as a result of COVID-19 quarantine and self-isolation strategies.

Perhaps we can see a small silver lining on the horizon. We have been pumping toxic pollutants and greenhouse gasses into the planet’s atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution. Maybe, this will give the planet its first, much needed break.


Published by busybeebella

An energetic and enthusiastic young writing passionate about scientific communication.

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