What COVID-19 Teaches Us About Air Pollution

It’s hard to see anything good come out of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the coronavirus outbreak caused people to remain indoors and to stop non-essential activities. As business slowed down and transportation dwindled, many areas saw lower air pollution and clearer skies. It seems that COVID-19 is good for the environment, but is this true? Regardless, the pandemic can teach us valuable lessons about air pollution affects our lives.

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Air Pollution Weakens Defenses

A significant cause of air pollution is the vehicles that people use to move around and transport items. Most engines produce nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides, which are toxic gases that can harm your airways and lungs.

Vehicles also produce particular matter, which are notably tiny particles of soot and ash. These particles can become lodged into your lungs, causing inflammation and directly damaging the delicate respiratory tissues.

Together, gaseous emissions and particulate matter comprise most of the air pollution in urban areas. While trees and other plants can help provide cleaner air, they can’t remove all of the pollutants in the air. Mainly, they don’t absorb particulates, which are left suspended in the air. 

It also turns out that air pollution can make COVID-19 worse. People exposed to air pollution have higher death rates and are more likely to catch the infection in the first place. This observation is expected, since dirty air damages the tissues of the respiratory system. Weakened by injury, your lungs become a prime target for pathogens such as the novel coronavirus.

Air pollution directly damages your body and also makes you more likely to catch diseases. Hence, communities need to do even more to ensure that everyone has access to a clean atmosphere.

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Everything Is Interconnected

COVID-19 uses the respiratory system to invade the human body and infect other people. The virus can remain suspended in respiratory droplets, spread for several feet, and cause infection once a person inhales them. The coronavirus can also survive for hours on surfaces, allowing people to pick them up. When these people touch their eyes, nose, or mouth, the virus can enter the body and cause illness.

To slow down transmission rates, communities implemented social distancing rules that limited the activities that people can do to essential ones. Leisure activities that require people to go outside and meet people were made off-limits. Everyone started to wear personal protective equipment, such as face masks and face shields, to protect themselves and others from the virus.

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Anything that affects daily activity is bound to change many aspects of our environment, and COVID-19 is no exception. Within weeks of implementing community quarantine, pollution levels dropped. In some heavily polluted areas, it became easier to see clear blue skies.

Aside from the drop in particulate matter and toxic gases, the rate at which the world releases carbon dioxide also decreased. Many areas experienced a reduction in electricity demand, prompting many power plants that depend on fossil fuels to pause operations temporarily. As carbon emissions cause climate change, many people acknowledged the environmental impact of COVID-19. 

The pandemic shows us how everything is interconnected. While COVID-19 is a public health issue, it changed human behavior so much that it even had an impact on the physical environment. As Steve Taylor, Ph.D., remarked, “we are not islands, but part of the ocean. We don’t live in separateness, but in connectedness.”

This interconnectedness means that there can be multiple approaches that authorities can use to fight air pollution. At the same time, it highlights the necessity of meticulous planning; any plan might have unexpected consequences.

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We Need To Take Action

While many people are relieved to know that the virus outbreaks led to cleaner air, you should know that this change is temporary. Any improvements in air quality were only because of reduced human activity. Once lockdowns ease and regular operations return, air pollution will go back to pre-COVID levels.

There’s a real possibility that air quality will deteriorate even further. As companies and governments scramble to recover, they might become less strict with environmental regulations to favor economic growth. For example, factories might run overtime, causing more emissions. If we don’t take action, we might end up with even bleaker skies than before.

The time for action is now. Air pollution makes people prone to illnesses. However, it is a problem that has multiple multidisciplinary approaches. COVID-19 shows us that communities need to be proactive if we want to have clean air that lasts.

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