Air Pollution Might Amplify Coronavirus Infections, Warn Experts

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Clean air volunteers demand clean air
Action at the Ministry of Environment and Forests in New Delhi. Image courtesy: Greenpeace India

According to the experts, the health hazard inflicted on people by long-standing air pollution is likely to impact the fatality rate emerging from Covid-19 infections. Polluted air is known to cause respiratory diseases and is responsible for at least 8 mn early deaths annually. This means that Covid-19, which spreads through respiratory droplets, is expected to have a more serious impact on city dwellers and those exposed to toxic emissions from fossil fuels. 

However, strict confinement measures in China, where the coronavirus outbreak began, and in Italy, Europe’s most affected nation, have led to falls in air pollution as fewer vehicles are driven, and industrial emissions fall.

According to a report by the Guardian, a preliminary calculation by a US expert suggests that tens of thousands of premature deaths from air pollution may have been avoided by the cleaner air in China, far higher than the 3,208 coronavirus deaths. It is said particularly in the context of China and Italy (currently most affected with Covid-19), where maximum cities under lockdown witnessed immense emission reduction. Experts clearly stated it does not mean in any way that experts are claiming the pandemic as good for health. However, experts have also cautioned that it is too early for conclusive studies on the relation of air pollution and coronavirus. 

Observations from previous coronavirus outbreaks suggest that people exposed to polluted air are more at risk of losing lives. Scientists who analysed the Sars coronavirus outbreak in China in 2003 revealed that infected people who lived in polluted areas were twice as likely to die as those in less polluted areas. Early research on Covid-19 also red flags smokers.   

Aaron Bernstein, the Interim Director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said, “Given what we know now, it is very likely that people who are exposed to more air pollution and who are smoking tobacco products are going to fare worse if infected with [Covid-19] than those who are breathing cleaner air, and who don’t smoke,” quoted Washington Post. 

With the lockdowns in place, reductions in emissions have been recorded in Italy. In China, when regions shut down as a rapid response to the corona outbreak, emission reduction was observed in the four weeks after 25 January. The level of PM2.5 fell by 25%, while nitrogen dioxide, produced mainly by diesel vehicles, dropped by 40%. 

In the Indian context, the 2019 World Air Quality Report released in the last week of February this year, pointed to a 20% reduction in annual emission levels but attributed this to the economic slowdown. According to the report, the findings were arrived at by comparing India’s economic growth with air pollution data, where it “appeared” to correlate with lower growth and lesser pollution. Having said that, it is also noteworthy to be reminded of the notice served by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) to the polluting power plants for non-compliance of emission standards. 

CPCB’s Notice

To achieve the target of limiting warming to 1.5°C, polluting power plants need to be shut down. Image via Flickr.

On January 31st this year, in an unprecedented move, the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) issued show-cause notices to 14 coal-based power plants (5 plants in Haryana, 3 in Punjab, 2 in Uttar Pradesh, 2 in Andhra Pradesh, 2 in Telangana and 1 in Tamil Nadu) with a total capacity of approximately 15 GW. The notices were issued for non-compliance to the deadlines given to these power plants to reduce SO2 emissions by 2019 December under the notification issued on December 7th 2015 and later on the extension in timelines by CPCB in 2017.

CPCB, in its notice, asked the power generators, “Why should the plant not be closed down and environmental compensation be imposed for continuing non-compliance of the directions?” The show-cause notice cited the notification issued by the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change in the year 1984, 1986, 1989, 1999 and 2015 which mentioned the revised emission limit for particulate matter and notified new limits for Sulphur dioxide (SO2), Oxides of Nitrogen (NOx) and mercury emission, and water consumption limit for coal/lignite based thermal power plants. 

The notice also elaborated on how the power plants have not retrofitted Electrostatic Precipitators (ESP) and missed the deadline for installing Flue Gas Desulphurization (FGD) units. CPCB also strictly advised the power plants to immediately take measures such as the installation of low NOx burners and  provide Over Fire Air (OFA) to achieve progressive reduction to comply with NOx emissions.

To achieve the target of limiting warming to 1.5°C, polluting power plants need to be shut down. Analysts have repeatedly argued that if India is really concerned about the pollution crisis, no new fossil fuel infrastructure should be built. 

Fossil Fuel Emissions, Deaths And Covid-19

Last year, a report by the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution (GAHP) found pollution to be the largest environmental cause of premature death on the planet, causing 15% of all deaths—some 8.3 million people. The latest year for which data was available, among the 10 countries with the most pollution deaths in 2017, included both developed and developing nations.

India and China led in the number of pollution deaths, with about 2.3 million and 1.8 million respectively, followed by Nigeria, Indonesia and Pakistan. “India has seen increasing industrial and vehicular pollution from urban growth while poor sanitation and contaminated indoor air persist in low-income communities,” the report said.

Experts’ concerns around air pollution and Covid-19 transmission, if at all, stand substantial in the long run, it calls for caution for countries particularly such as India. 

According to the media reports, the link between air pollutants and early deaths are well-known and Marshall Burke, at Stanford University in the US, used the data to estimate the impacts on air pollution mortality. The young and old are worst affected by polluted air. As per Burke’s calculation, the cleaner air is expected to have prevented 1,400 early deaths in children under five and 51,700 early deaths in people over 70.

Experts’ concerns around air pollution and Covid-19 transmission, if at all, stand substantial in the long run, it calls for caution for countries particularly such as India. Image Credit: Quartz India

“The study on the relation between fossil fuels emissions and Covid-19 as published by the international publications lacks clarity and the methodology too is unknown, so it’s better to not comment on that,” said Independent Energy Analyst, Kshama Afreen. However, according to Kshama, India is suffering heavily for pollution and that must be addressed immediately.

India is estimated to bear 10.7 lakh crore, or 5.4 per cent of India’s GDP annually, the third highest costs from fossil fuel air pollution worldwide. That amounted to a loss of ₹3.39 lakh per second, according to the report by environment organisation Greenpeace Southeast Asia. That must be a concern for the governments,” she added. 

Experts also believe that the indirect impacts of Covid-19 may be probably much higher than currently known. Talking to the Guardian Sascha Marschang, the acting Secretary-General of the European Public Health Alliance, said, “Once this crisis is over, policymakers should speed up measures to get dirty vehicles off our roads. Science tells us that epidemics like Covid-19 will occur with increasing frequency. So cleaning up the streets is a basic investment for a healthier future.”

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