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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sky News has launched the first daily prime time news show dedicated to climate change.
The Daily Climate Show is broadcast at 6.30pm and 9.30pm Monday to Friday on Sky News, the Sky News website and app, on YouTube and Twitter.
Hosted by Anna Jones, it follows Sky News correspondents as they investigate how global warming is changing our landscape and how we all live our lives.
The show also highlights solutions to the crisis and how small changes can make a big difference.