On the first Wednesday of June, Canadians celebrate Clean Air Day to recognize the importance of air quality and how it impacts our health and environment. In Manitoba, Green Action Centre hosts an annual sustainable commuting pit-stop (as part of Commuter Challenge week) and an outdoor event for students to encourage sustainable mobility and air quality.
Due to the impacts of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we are unable to hold these long-running events in person and have adapted them to allow Manitobans to celebrate clean air from home. During these trying times, it is more important than ever to discuss the issue of air quality and how it relates to health.
There is a significant connection between transportation, air pollution, and respiratory illnesses. It is essential that we consider all of these important factors when planning for the resiliency of our environment, as well as our transportation and health systems.
Air pollution is one of the most significant environmental challenges that affects public health across the world. Air pollution is primarily caused by the burning of fossil fuels, as they are used to generate electricity, heat homes, and especially, to fuel automobile transportation.
The burning of fossil fuels produces nitrogen oxides (NO and NO2) and hydrocarbons (HC).
When these are mixed with other volatile organic compounds (VOCs), these pollutants begin ground-level ozone production. When these common pollutants are mixed and exposed to sunshine, the solar energy acts as a catalyst for the chemical reactions that produce harmful ground-level ozone.
In addition to the harmful burning of fossil fuels, combustion engine automobiles also produce particulate matter from emissions and mechanical wear, such as the breakdown of brake lining or rubber tires.
In early 2019, the Chest Journal published a review on the damaging health effects of air pollution. The comprehensive review found that air pollution may be damaging “every organ and virtually every cell in the human body”, including; heart disease, lung disease, diabetes, dementia, liver problems, bladder cancer, brittle bones, damaged skin, and fertility, among other health impacts.
The health impacts are so significant that the World Health Organization has deemed it a “public health emergency”, as more than 90% of the global population endures toxic outdoor air and accounts for 8.8 million early deaths each year.
Many of these health impacts are caused by ozone, nitrogen dioxide, and fine particulate matter in the air.
Ground-level ozone irritates and inflames the respiratory tract, being especially harmful to individuals with existing respiratory problems. Furthermore, the impacts of ozone can become more harmful when combined with common urban pollutants, such as acids, pesticides, chlorofluorocarbons, and metal aerosols. At least half of Canadians are already being exposed to harmful levels of ground-level ozone during the summer months, which will become more deadly as the climate crisis progresses and temperatures increase.
Nitrogen dioxide impacts the respiratory system in similar ways as ozone. It irritates the lungs, increases risk of respiratory infections, and commonly exacerbates asthma. Some studies have demonstrated that long-term exposure may impact lung function and can cause asthma or allergies. An important aspect of nitrogen dioxide is the role it plays in the atmosphere; it contributes to ground-level ozone and smog.
Particulate matter is composed of tiny, respirable particles that cannot be filtered out by the defences of the respiratory tract and are inhaled directly into the lower airways, where the particles may adhere to and irritate delicate tissue. These minuscule (10 micrometers) made of metal, rubber, and burnt gasoline can induce asthma attacks, cause respiratory illnesses, and sometimes cause premature death.
These health impacts are even more damaging on those who are young, old and experiencing any forms of pre-existing conditions. Children are especially at risk of respiratory problems brought on by air pollution because they spend more time outside, require more air per kilogram of body weight, and because they are still growing, their developing lungs are more sensitive to irritants. Those who experience chronic respiratory, cardiac, and pulmonary illnesses are also expected to suffer disproportionately under the impacts of air pollution. This demographic includes people with a heart condition, emphysema, bronchitis, allergies, and asthma.
Approximately 7% of Manitobans have asthma and are at great risk of experiencing a deadly asthma attack or being admitted to the hospital with shrinking or closed airways. Ozone has been implicated as a bronchoconstrictor (shrinking or closing airways) and if ozone levels continue to rise, so will the devastating health impacts.
Air pollution poses significant health impacts on many aspects of the human body. These impacts are exacerbated when paired with respiratory illnesses, such as COVID-19.
“It is well known that pollution impairs the first line of defence of upper airways, namely cilia, thus a subject living in an area with high levels of pollutant is more prone to develop chronic respiratory conditions and [is more vulnerable] to any infective agent,” reported a study focusing on Italy, published in the Journal Environmental Pollution.
Italy has had one of the highest COVID-19 death tolls in the world to date, with high levels of air pollution in northern Italy being cited as an additional ‘co-factor’ for the high death rates in that area. Northern Italy is one of Europe’s most polluted areas and as of March 21st, the death rates of several northern regions were recorded at 12%, compared to 4.5% in the rest of Italy (which can be attributed to a number of factors).
According to the Guardian, even a single unit increase in particle pollution levels in the years leading up to 2020 can be associated with a significant 15% increase in the COVID-19 death rate. Even slightly cleaner air in the locations that have been hit the hardest by the pandemic could have saved hundreds of lives.
In response to the global COVID-19 pandemic, much of the world was forced into lockdown with strict stay at home orders to help slow the spread of the virus.
This collective disruption of daily routines forced many industrial and anthropogenic activities to come to a halt, most notably, driving. Most major Canadian cities saw drastic improvements over the past few months (April and May 2020), as the pandemic kept many Canadians home and off the roads. In Toronto and Montreal, nitrogen dioxide levels fell more than 30%, in Edmonton and Calgary, the drop was closer to 40% compared to before the pandemic. Experts at Environment and Climate Change Canada attribute these dramatic changes to fewer vehicles on the roads and factories either closing or cutting production levels.
International air quality technology company, IQAir, also found significant drops in fine particles (PM2.5) within various cities. The study showed fine particles were down 60% in Delhi, 54% in Seoul, 31% in Los Angeles, and 25% in New York City compared to the same three-week period in April of 2019.
According to the Global Journal of Environmental Science and Management, the reduction of air pollution during the lockdown may have saved more lives by preventing ambient air pollution than by preventing infection.
While lockdowns across the world have contributed to significant reductions in air pollution levels, it is imperative that we take steps to ensure cleaner air in the future, to help reduce COVID-19-related deaths and other health impacts.
To reduce air pollution even further, existing air pollution and environmental regulations must continue to be enforced, as failure to do so would undoubtedly lead to additional deaths. Unfortunately, we have seen the rolling back of environmental regulations during the pandemic, as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency suspended enforcement of environmental laws on March 26th, 2020.
The good news about air pollution is that it can be addressed, in fact, it is one of the most avoidable causes of disease and death around the world.
The best way to reduce human exposure to air pollution is to control air pollution at the source. With transportation – the moving of people and goods – being the largest contributor (43%) of greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution in Manitoba, it is imperative that governments take action to help maintain the positive mode shift that we have witnessed during the pandemic.
Investing in a sustainable transportation system will help address many issues within Manitoba, including financial insolvency, inequality, public health, and the environment.
We must take bold action to reduce the release of air pollutants because this isn’t only a climate crisis, this is also a health crisis.
https://freakonomics.com/podcast/covid-19-effects/ (start at the end of the third last quote block)