Air Quality Update
When considering the largest environmental issues that impact health, you might think of the current COVID-19 pandemic, toxic chemicals or water contamination.
You might be surprised to learn that air pollution is currently the largest environmental health hazard for humans.
Nine out of ten people, globally, breathe polluted air.
Air pollution is responsible for as many as seven million premature deaths per year.
For perspective, the global death toll attributed to COVID-19 was around 2.6 million at the one year mark.
Yet, we aren’t talking about air pollution much.
This article discusses the following:
- The global state of air pollution and the 2020 Air Quality report
- The connection between COVID-19 and air pollution
- Action steps you can take today to protect your lungs
Let’s jump right in!
The 2020 Air Quality Report
Has air pollution gone down in 2020? There has been more time spent at home, much less travel and various restrictions across the country and globe. These factors most certainly impact pollution levels and climate change.
Let’s look at the data. IQ Air released its 2020 World Air Quality Report comparing PM 2.5 data across the globe.
PM 2.5, or particulate matter 2.5, refers to small particles in the air that are 2.5 micrometers or smaller. These particles are composed of sulfates, nitrates, heavy metals, hydrocarbons and other pollutants. Because of their small size, they easily miss the body’s filtration and get into the lungs and eventually into circulation.
PM 2.5 are measured as part of the Air Quality Index, along with ozone, carbon monoxide and other pollutants. The lower the number the better the air quality. Good air quality is considered below 50 and unhealthy air quality is above 150.
When comparing air quality data from 2020 to the previous year, 2019, there was quite a reduction in PM 2.5 data from around the world. The report found:
- Singapore – 25% reduction in PM 2.5 emissions
- Beijing – 23% reduction in PM 2.5 emissions
- Bangkok – 20% reduction in PM 2.5 emissions
- Chicago – 8% reduction in PM 2.5 emissions
- Buenos Aries – 18% reduction in PM 2.5 emissions
- Santiago – 14% reduction in PM 2.5 emissions
- Paris – 14% reduction in PM 2.5 emissions
- London – 15% reduction in PM 2.5 emissions
- Tel Aviv-Yafo – 15% reduction in PM 2.5 emissions
- Kampala – 10% reduction in PM 2.5 emissions
- Johannesburg – 9% reduction in PM 2.5 emissions
- Tokyo – 17% reduction in PM 2.5 emissions
- Mumbai – 13% reduction in PM 2.5 emissions
China, who has 42 of the top 100 most polluted cities, 86 percent of the cities have cleaner air now compared to prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some places saw an increase in emissions in 2020 compared to 2019. These cities include:
- San Palo – 5% increase in PM 2.5 emissions
- Los Angeles – 1% increase in PM 2.5 emissions
- Melbourne – 1% increase in PM 2.5 emissions.
Why the increase? Wildfires.
Los Angeles, for example, had a 31 percent decrease in PM 2.5 emissions during the first lockdown phase in 2020, but overall had a net increase due to wildfires, a large contributor to atmospheric particulate matter pollution.
The 2020 average air pollution levels in the United States were higher than the previous two years, even with lockdown measures and less travel. A record wildfire year is part of the reason. In September of 2020, Washington, Oregon and California had 77 of the top 100 most polluted cities for PM 2.5!
The other reason for worsening air pollution levels in the U.S. has to do with rollbacks on environmental regulation paired with a lack of enforcement during the years in this study.
Despite the forest fires and impact of climate change, COVID-19 measures improved air quality in 84 percent of countries globally. Unfortunately, many of these effects were greater during the first lock down period and expected to be short lived.
Demand is already coming back. The International Energy Agency estimates that net emissions fell by 1.9 billion tons in 2020, but are expected to increase by 1.5 billion tons in 2021.
COVID-19, Air Pollution And Your Health
We’ve already seen how human behavior change related to COVID-19 reduced air pollution, at least temporarily. But, there is more to the relationship between COVID-19 and air pollution.
Exposure to particle pollution may increase one’s vulnerability to COVID. It makes sense if you think about it. Air pollution damages the lungs, increases inflammation (Add link to inflammation article) and affects the immune system, which increases the risk of a more severe COVID-19 disease and mortality.
One study estimates that exposure to air pollution contributed to 15 percent of COVID-19 deaths worldwide! This includes 17 percent in North America and up to 27 percent in East Asia.
Another study suggests that air pollution accelerates the spread of viruses. The virus may actually attach to particulate matter and then get inhaled. Particulate matter in the air could create a suitable environment for increasing the transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
A study in China found greater rates of COVID-19 correlate with greater air pollution, including short term exposures to air pollution.
This is not new thinking. Exposure to air pollution has been previously associated with other viral infections including influenza, measles, mumps and others.
Mechanisms to explain why air pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide, ozone and particulate matter include:
- Air pollution may decrease the mucus production and clearance of the virus from the lungs
- Air pollution may change viral proteins
- Air pollution may increase the permeability of the lungs
- Air pollution may alter the response of the immune system
This isn’t only an environmental or health issue, but a social justice one as well.
Air pollution disproportionately affects poor and minority communities, as does COVID-19. Air pollution may still be higher in minority communities, even with stay-at-home orders.
Air pollution contributes to many of the conditions that increase one’s risk for COVID-19 severity. These include asthma, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), diabetes, heart disease and other chronic diseases.
How To Decrease Your Exposure To Air Pollution
Air pollution is such a huge issue globally that it is going to take a lot of effort to reduce emissions and begin to curb climate change.
Climate change impacts the frequency and severity of high pollution episodes, like the recent fires in the Amazon, Australia and the West coast of the United States that we saw last fall. 2020 tied with 2016 as the hottest years on record.
So while we are going to dive into some of the things to implement in your personal life, one of the best things that you can do is to advocate for systemic change, elect pro-environment leaders and get involved in cleaning up this beautiful planet of ours.
Here are some action steps to consider:
- Check out the air quality in your local area. Get in the habit of checking the Air Quality Index, or AQI, in your area. The IQAir App is a great option as it will send a morning alert to your phone. Or check out the government Air Now website.
- Adjust your behavior. Make the air quality a factor, just like the weather, in deciding outdoor activities. When air quality is poor, consider an indoor yoga class vs. running outside.
- Use an indoor air filter. Indoor air is often worse than outdoor air because of toxins in paint, building materials and upholstery, but is also influenced by what is going on outside. A portable indoor air filter, such as IQAir HealthPro or Austin Air HealthMate, is easy to use and makes a big difference as to the air you breathe.
If you work from home, have one in your office and another in the bedroom. If you are prone to forest fires in your area, invest in these and use them when outdoor air quality is harmful. Both of these options filter PM 2.5.
- Breathe deeply (when it is safe to do so). Deep breathing, from breathing exercises, yoga, meditation, exercise and other modalities, helps to strengthen the lungs.
- Don’t smoke. This one seems obvious, but is worth mentioning! Quit smoking and avoid exposure to second hand and third hand smoke. Your lungs already face and incredible burden and it’s helpful to reduce all of the exposures within your control.
- Check radon in your home. If you live in certain parts of the country and have a basement, you may be exposed to radon. This colorless, odorless radioactive gas damages the lungs, worsens respiratory conditions and is a cause of lung cancer. Installing a radon mitigation system might save a life.
- Adopt an eco friendly lifestyle. Consider building a life that supports your health and that of the planet. This might mean making intentional choices around driving less, taking fewer airplane trips, limiting single use plastics, choosing organic and local food and more.
Air pollution is the largest contributor to premature death in the world. We now know that air pollution is a major factor affecting who is most susceptible to severe outcomes from COVID-19. While COVID precautions have temporarily lowered emissions and pollution levels, we have so much more work to do in this area.
This information is meant to empower you to make changes and advocate for your health, both in the medical system and in your local community. When we know more, we make educated decisions about how we live our lives and the air we breathe.
UPDATE: July – August 2021, winds are blowing smoke from West Coast wildfires across the United States, making the air quality index poor in many parts of the country. Check your local air quality reports and limit your time outdoors when air quality is bad.