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COVID deaths in England’s first wave were 70% higher in areas with worst air pollution, study finds

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Deaths from COVID-19 in England during the first wave of the pandemic were 70% higher in areas with worse air pollution than the national average, new research has revealed.

Report author Peter Congdon, geography professor at Queen Mary University of London, said he hoped the study would help avoid a high number of deaths in future similar epidemics – and also serve to highlight “the long standing issues of poor air quality in cities”.

The report, published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal J, found the prevalence of nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide and particulate matter 10 were “significant influences” on deaths from COVID-19.

Comparatively, 40% fewer people died in areas of England with the cleanest air.

Extinction Rebellion protest in London
Activists take part in an Extinction Rebellion protest against air pollution kills in London, Britain, December 9, 2019
Image: Extinction Rebellion protesters highlight the danger of air pollution back in 2019

The study “makes clear why we need to care about air pollution”, said Professor Alastair Lewis, air pollution expert at York University.

“Often, it (air pollution) is perceived as something that affects somebody else, or seen as only a problem in some really severe events that might pop up once or twice a year,” he said. “But actually, long-term low-level exposure affects wellbeing in the same way as more visible things like obesity or lack of activity.”

The report assessed a range of socioeconomic and environmental factors and found equal links with health deprivation and ethnic isolation – a measure of ethnic segregation.

More on Air Pollution

Air pollution cuts short around 40,000 UK lives each year, according to the Royal College of Physicians.

In March, the Court of Justice of the European Union rebuked the UK for “systematically and persistently” exceeding legal limits for dangerous nitrogen dioxide since 2010, and failing in its legal duties to clean up dirty air.

Chart shows deaths from COVID-19 in areas with the highest pollution - in the "tenth decile" - than the English average, while deaths in areas with the cleanest air was 40% below average.
Image: Deaths from COVID-19 in areas with the highest pollution (tenth decile) were 70% higher than the English average, while deaths in areas with the cleanest air (first decile) were 40% below average

Nitrogen oxide and sulphur dioxide come from the likes of car engines and heavy industry, whilst particulate matter is dust released from things like road transport.

Climate change can affect the build up of air pollution, as well as trigger more emissions from events such as wildfires. Burning fossil fuels also contributes to both climate change and air pollution.

Friends of the Earth said the findings should “sound the alarm” in government and has called for the UK to adopt legally-binding air quality targets in the forthcoming environment bill, scrap a planned £27bn roads programme, and invest more in making walking, cycling and public transport easier and more affordable.

Pollution targets are not on track, according to a UN report
Image: The government is being urged to set bolder pollution targets

A Defra spokesperson said air pollution had reduced since 2010, but they “know there is more to do” and promised “ambitious new air quality targets”.

The ecological study – published on Clean Air Day – covers the first wave of the pandemic up until June 2020. The results from the second wave could well be different, as variants developed first in more rural areas.

Professor Congdon acknowledged that poor air quality is a “surrogate” for other factors like population density and urban living, but added: “One might ask what is it about living in cities that raises risks?”

Other studies published on Clean Air Day found air pollution at almost 8,000 UK schools is worse than the recommended World Health Organisation limit, and that more than half of Europe’s cities are still plagued by dirty air.

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