As the world is gripped by the health and economic crisis born of COVID-19 and millions of us start our lockdown life, it is hard to find anything to be pleased about.
The shutters have come down on bars and restaurants, family gatherings are as good as banned and high streets are ghost towns with businesses going to the wall while we watch in horror as our health service – and that of many other countries – is brought to its knees by the ongoing crisis.
With current headlines, it would be easy to allow the whole sorry situation to overwhelm you.
So from the comfort of my own isolation pod – my new, hastily created, home office – I was delighted to spot a glimmer of hope as I scrolled through the pages of grim news: ‘Air quality is improving in countries under Coronavirus quarantine,’ the headline spelled out. ‘At last, some positive news,’ I thought to myself.
Because for years now, I have been championing the cause of clean air – reducing air pollution, both outside and indoors – because of the horrendous harm it causes to our public health. Seven million deaths a year worldwide, actually, figures from the World Health Organisation show.
Just a few days of fewer people on the streets and nitrogen dioxide levels have dropped in Spain, Italy and China, according to data from the European Space Agency, European Environment Agency and NASA. NO2 is mainly produced by vehicles, industrial sites and thermal power station and can cause serious respiratory conditions.
In Venice, polluted canals have been clearer and wildlife returned to the cleaner water.
Mr Fei Liu, an air quality researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre, noted the change in China, saying: ‘This is the first time I have seen such a dramatic drop-off over such a wide area for a specific event.’
Much of my career has been spent calling for measures to tackle pollution and warning that poor air quality is a silent killer.
Nobody could have predicted the silent killer sweeping across the globe in the form of this virus – apart from science fiction writers, and surely even they must have thought such a story would seem far-fetched in the 21st century tech-driven world.
Not so. And we all long for the day the headlines boast of a vaccine or cure coming to market.
Thankfully, there are more immediate measures that can help us tackle air quality concerns.
In a further piece of light reading, it was encouraging to see that Guy’s and St Thomas Charity has launched a new £40m programme focusing on the health effects of air pollution.
The programme, launched this month, will focus on the implications of air pollution on vulnerable groups, including children, older people and those with existing lung and heart conditions and seek potential solutions.
They are working with researchers at King’s College London, Global Action Plan and CrispinCo to gather data from the London boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark ranging from public perception and focus groups to expert views and system maps.
These two boroughs are among the most polluted areas of London, five out of ten hospitals in Lambeth and Southwark are in an area where PM2.5 is 50% higher than the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations and 15% of homes and 6% of schools are also in areas with dangerously high pollution levels.
Kate Langford, air pollution programme director at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity said: ‘We don’t expect this to be easy – we will need to bring together leading experts in atmospheric science, transport, construction, behavioural economics and political science.’
Jacob West, executive director of Healthcare Innovation at the British Heart Foundation said: ‘Air pollution may bring sooty car fumes, smoky chimneys and deadly smogs to mind, but the truth is that toxic air is all around us, even when we can’t see it.
‘The UK’s legal air quality limits on air pollution don’t go far enough. We currently subscribe to EU legal limits, but these are far less stringent than the World Health Organization’s (WHO) guidelines, which many parts of the UK do not currently meet.
‘We want the Government to update our air quality laws and make the WHO guidelines legally binding. However, this won’t be enough on its own.’
To help developers gain planning permission, we at Syntegra are frequently called on to provide air quality assessments to protect the local residents and environment from poor air quality. These look at issues such as dispersion modelling, odour and dust assessments.
Indoor air quality is also a concern of ours at Syntegra and we offer a comprehensive range of Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) assessment services.
Indoor air quality can be affected by gases (including carbon monoxide, radon, volatile organic compounds), particulates, microbial contaminants (mould, bacteria), or any mass or energy that can result in poor air quality and could induce adverse health conditions in occupants.
Our qualified air quality consultants offer expert advice and assessment of source control, filtration, and the use of ventilation to dilute contaminants with the aim of improving a building’s overall air quality.
It would appear that every human being on the planet is affected to a greater or lesser extent by the COVID-19 pandemic. Likewise, every individual’s quality of life is impacted by the quality of the air they breathe in the environment, their homes and places of work.
Because of its immediacy and media saturation, the virus is at the forefront of everyone’s mind. But once lockdown is lifted, a vaccine found and a sense of normality is restored, let’s see even a fraction of the world’s attention turn to this other huge health threat with equal vigour.
And in the meantime, during what promises to be many long days of reflection, let’s be grateful that the environment might be taking a rest from the pummelling it has taken in recent decades and think about how we can emerge from this crisis more mindful of how we life our life.