Many scientists suspect that air pollution has a negative impact on the number of transmissions and the risks of a COVID-19 infection. After all, it is well established that particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, and other hazardous airborne substances lead to lung and cardiovascular diseases. People with these pre-existing conditions are considered particularly at risk in the event of a coronavirus infection. The Environment and Health Committee of the European Parliament has therefore, on my initiative, commissioned a study to investigate the concrete link between air pollution and COVID-19. The very interesting study can be found here.
In their study, the researchers from the University of Utrecht draw the unfortunately well-known dramatic picture: Every year, more than 400,000 people in Europe die prematurely from diseases caused by air pollution. They also show that many studies point to a link between air pollution and risks of a coronavirus infection, although the data is still thin due to the limited time available. For example, researchers in Italy found an association between particulate matter pollution and mortality rates from COVID-19. Air pollution causes chronic diseases such as asthma, lung cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Many of these diseases increase the likelihood of hospitalizations, ICU admissions, and deaths when infected with COVID-19. For this reason alone, scientists see serious evidence of negative effects of air pollution on the COVID-19 pandemic. However, more (long-term) studies are needed to provide strong evidence for this assumption.
The researchers are very clear in their conclusions about the link between air pollution and health risks in general. Not only is air pollution far too high in many parts of Europe – it is also often unevenly distributed. Regions with lower average incomes are often exposed to more hazardous substances in the air. This reflects both the west-east divide in Europe and regional differences within the member states. In turn, social inequality is exacerbated by air pollution because people with lower incomes often have poorer access to health care and are thus more likely to suffer from illness.
The scientists also looked at how the “lockdowns” in Europe over the last year affected air quality. Unsurprisingly, nitrogen oxide levels in cities fell by 30% to 50% during these periods. So, clearly, less traffic leads to better air. The situation is different for particulate matter, as there are also other sources, such as industrial factory farming. Since these industries were much less affected by lockdowns, particulate matter levels dropped only very slightly.
The Environment and Health Committee’s study is alarming because so many illnesses could be prevented and lives saved if EU air quality laws were properly implemented. It is obvious that in many member states air pollution regularly exceeds the permitted limits. For years, the governments have not managed to protect citizens from the dangers of air pollution. I am currently the Green rapporteur for a parliamentary report on the implementation of EU air quality legislation in the member states. Among other things, we will evaluate the implementation of the rules on particulate matter, ammonia, and nitrogen oxides. I therefore look forward to your support and contributions. Especially practical examples of poor implementation will be of great help in the upcoming discussions and votes in the Environment Committee.
With European Green greetings,
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Study commissioned by the EU Environment and Health Committee: https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2021/658216/IPOL_STU(2021)658216_EN.pdf