Do the positive effects of the Corona Lock-Down offset the health issues caused by the pandemic?

A deeper analysis for Munich

The COVID-19 pandemic has infected about 13 million people and claimed more than 550 thousand deaths worldwide by 14 July 2020. It has been reported in research that high air pollution may be “one of the most important contributors to deaths from COVID-19”. Studies show a positive correlation between particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide to health damage and, more specifically, to diseases related to the lungs like pneumonia, which makes people suffering from these ailments more susceptible to COVID 19. On the other hand, due to the lockdown measures, significant improvement in air quality has been witnessed. Read more

The long overdue paradigm shift towards a healthy, carbon neutral economy starts with cleaning our air

Air quality management – a fascinating lineage

I grew up in Cairo. A city that shows all the typical traits of an emerging economy when it comes to air quality and health. I grew up in a household of doctors, who spent their lifetime researching the delicate relationship between the air we breathe and our health. Here is a paper co-written by my dad for The Lancet Journal on the “Effect of nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide on airway response of mild asthmatic patients to allergen inhalation” written back in 1998. So imagine you grow up seeing and hearing about the “Black Cloud” of Cairo and the rise of patient visits in my parents’ clinic around the dinner table. Or discussions on best treatment options for patients during the long drives towards the Egyptian Red Sea coast with its windy fresh air. Thus, I always understood the topic of air pollution within a context – the context of bad health indicators, exacerbated symptoms, increased healthcare expenditures and overall reduced life quality.

The notion that air quality is more than just a concentration value or a legal threshold to adhere to is not new. It is a recurring theme throughout human history.

  • Roman philosopher Seneca in 61 AD stated: “As soon as I had escaped the heavy air of Rome and the stench of its smoky chimneys, which when stirred poured forth whatever pestilent vapours and soot they held enclosed I felt a change in my disposition”
  • Famous polymath Abū Bakr Muḥammad ibn Zakariyyā ar-Rāzī, or as known in the western world as Rhazes, was reported to have hung raw pieces of meat all over the city of Baghdad to investigate the best suitable location to build the largest hospital of the time in the 9th century, choosing the location where the meat remained freshest.
  • Canary birds helping miners to detect carbon monoxides and other toxic gasses before they hurt humans operating in those ghastly conditions.

A fascinating lineage which we commit to follow today

Air pollution knows no boundaries, neither in a geographical sense nor in its sequential impact across all facets of our lives. Today, it has reached a scale beyond all bearing. Its detrimental effects now impact human health, human mobility, climate change and even food security. It is causing more cases of preemptive deaths globally than AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis combined, making it the greatest environmental health risk of our time according to the World Health Organization (WHO).  As such, solving this challenge needs a system approach that qualms the adverse effect of bad air quality across all the above-mentioned sectors.  It is time for a paradigm shift, when it comes how we deal and what we do with air quality data.

As intuitive as it may seem to use air quality data and data-driven insights to optimize everyday processes in ecological terms, the hitherto developed methods, unfortunately, seem to have lost their purpose. Highly sophisticated and expensive apparatus measure air pollution in our cities today. The data is barely accessible, let alone applied to address challenges of public health, mobility, climate change and urban planning on a scale fit for the size of the problem at-hand.  J. Pentreath wrote in 1998: “At present systems for monitoring and gathering information are inefficient and wasteful. They generate excessive amounts of data on subjects which do not need it; They fail to provide timely and relevant information on other subjects where it is urgent.’”

And the urgency has never been stronger and the willingness to act has never been greater. Air pollution has become one of the most important avoidable risk to health globally. Many studies have found harmful effects of air pollution on a continuum of exposure that extends down into levels considered safe by national standards. These effects are noticeable in all bodily systems and not only the lungs. (Read on the excess mortality of COVID-19 through air pollution here).

Short-Lived-Climate-Pollutants

Black Carbon and tropospheric ozone are also considered climate pollutants. They belong to the group of “Short-Lived-Climate Pollutants” (SLCPs). Why are they called “short-lived”? Because their atmospheric lifetime is a fraction of that of CO2.

UNEP and WHO (2011). Integrated Assessment of Black Carbon and Tropospheric Ozone. UNEP, Nairobi

This is both a threat and an opportunity: measures curbing SLCPs generate their impact within weeks, while Methane and CO2 abatement measures require decades, if not centuries. So, by focusing on mitigating air pollution we are tackling a perpetrator that is harming both our health and our climate. In fact, according to the WHO and UNEP, climate change mitigation will only be possible when SLCPs and CO2 are addressed simultaneously.

UNEP and WHO (2011). Integrated Assessment of Black Carbon and Tropospheric Ozone. UNEP, Nairobi

In an effort to internalize environmental aspects in mainstream processes, several companies using comprehensive carbon footprint calculating software to support businesses in reducing their carbon footprint along their core processes. This is greatly needed, but we also need to take air pollution into account when using such tools. 215 of the biggest global companies recently reported that 1trillion$ worth of assets was at risk due to climate impacts in the next five years. They also state that climate business opportunities are calculated at $2.1trillion and we are convinced – for the above reasons – that cleaning our air is the pathway to unlocking this potential.

Converting our world into data and insights

For the first time in human history, the technology exists today to monitor every single emission – of every city, every airport, every harbour, every street, every factory, industry park and wildfire. At our disposal are tools to hold those accountable that do not adhere to environmental commitments and those using their resources lavishly. It forms the basis of understanding the complex intricacies of our planet, the interdependence of our ecosystems.

Exposed number of people vs. actual NO2 concentration

But even better, it forms the basis for new products and services that reward those who take air quality into account when managing (public) health, planning traffic, investing in and building new properties with cleaner air.

Time series comparison of pre- and post-lockdown for German cities

In general all graphs show that the mean NO2 concentration after the lockdown date has decreased – at some stations the effect is larger than at others. Concentration peaks with similar amplitudes, compared to before the lockdown, persist. The overall patterns would require a more detailed analysis of the locations e.g. considering mobility behaviour.

  • Berlin
  • Dresden
  • Hamburg
  • Suttgart

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Time series comparison of pre- and post-lockdown for sample cities show that the lockdown impact on NO2 concentrations varies

Cities worldwide have been imposing lockdowns due to coronavirus, leading to traffic reductions and related to that, less NO2 pollution. The strength of the effect is not the same everywhere, being dependent on a number of variables, such as pollution levels and amount of traffic before the lockdown at the particular location, fleet composition, weather conditions and topography and urban architecture. Furthermore, the measures defining the “lockdown” were not the same everywhere and were also implemented with different levels of rigour. Without analyzing in-depth the factors at play at different places across the world, here just a few examples of what the change in NO2 pollution looked like in a few cities:

  • Wuhan
  • Paris
  • London
  • Fresno
  • Dehli
  • Boston

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NO2 concentrations during the lockdown in Munich

I have recently heard people uttering disappointment regarding the rather small effect they have observed at official measurement stations in Munich during the time of the lockdown due to the coronavirus. Looking at the raw hourly measurement traces at different locations in and around Munich, we can see a very clear drop during the initial phase of the lockdown, with concentrations coming up again after that. So we decided to take a deeper look. We considered impacts from weather conditions, season-specific influences as well as mobility behaviour. Read more

See the full picture: There is less net of the improvement in air quality through measures to curb the Covid-19 virus

Although measures to curb the Corona virus have (almost) brought many polluters to a standstill, the effects on the trends from measurements are not as obviously visible as some may have expected. In an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Dr. Birgit Fullerton, Head of Data Sience of Hawa Dawa, mentions possible reasons why the effects of the lock-down are not more clearly and sustainably recognizable in the air pollutant concentration in the area of Munich Airport (Süddeutsche Zeitung “At the airport you can hear the sparrows chirping”). Read more

Do Air Pollution Levels Influence COVID-19 Mortality Risk?

While the world has focused its full attention on the current coronavirus outbreak, other issues we were concerned about regarding our health might currently seem almost irrelevant to many of us. However, there is one factor that shouldn’t be ignored – potentially not even when looking at survival rates of COVID-19: air pollution.

While it is too early to clearly analyse the factors that affect survival rates of COVID-19 in different regions of the world, there is a fair amount of evidence that promotes the hypothesis that air pollution levels could play a significant role. Read more

Italian Scientists Discover a Correlation between Air Pollution (Particulate Matter) and the Rapid Spread of the Corona Virus in Northern Italy

This post is available in German only

What we should learn for air quality from measures to curb the Corona virus


In his article published in Ends Europe, Richard Weyndling cites European experts as well as health and environmental activists who agree that the impact of Covid-19 restrictions on air quality in Europe demonstrates the case for tougher action on pollution.

Greenpeace Spain yesterday published data showing that NO2 levels in Barcelona and Madrid have fallen significantly since restrictions on movement were put in place on 15 March. The average NO2 level from monitoring stations across Madrid, for example, fell from over 60 µg/m3 on 10 March to 15 µm/m3 a week later.

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