• Air Quality Monitoring
  • smart cities
  • COVID-19

Air Quality, Public Health, and COVID-19

Grant Samms
Aug 20, 2020

Guidehouse Insights City

The environmental movements of the 1960s and 1970s led a surge in public demand for governments to address pollution, including air pollution. These movements argued that everyone deserved to live free from the consequences of breathing pollution every day. Then, as now, cities were called on to address the health and economic effects of poor air quality through better monitoring, reporting, and pollution reduction. Although much progress has been made since the 1960s, the World Health Organization reports that air pollution is responsible for the deaths of 7 million people globally each year. As discussed in a recent Guidehouse Insights report on air quality monitoring, cities are once again examining how they can further combat air quality degradation at a time when the world is also facing the COVID-19 health crisis. 

The Emerging Link Between Airborne Pollution and COVID-19 Complications

The coronavirus outbreak added a new dimension to concerns around air pollution. As cars left the roads during lockdowns, billions of people watched as the skies cleared and the air was noticeably cleaner. At the same time, researchers discovered that those with lung damage from chronic exposure to air pollution were more susceptible to the respiratory virus’ worst effects. Researchers from the University of Birmingham recently published a report finding that even a single point increase in a person’s exposure to air pollution (especially fine particulate matter PM2.5) can lead to increased hospitalizations and deaths caused by the coronavirus. 

Other researchers have found similar results. Researchers at Harvard University found a positive correlation between the severity of COVID-19 infection and air pollution exposure. Researchers from Imperial College London and McGill University have been examining the possible correlations between these two factors. A working paper from American University in Washington, DC, compared infection rates in counties with varying numbers of industrial facilities after the federal government relaxed enforcement of air quality standards. Their findings suggest that counties with more industrial facilities saw 19% more deaths and 39% more total coronavirus cases compared with their less polluted counterparts.

What Cities Can Do

As the world emerges from the COVID-19 crisis, it is likely that pressure will increase for governments, both local and national, to further improve air quality. The ramifications of air pollution on coronavirus case severity as well as the ever-looming climate crisis stand to energize this topic in the public space. The good news for governments is that our understanding of air pollution, both how it moves through cities and its health effects, have improved greatly since the 1970s. 

For instance, we now know that air quality can vary dramatically over just a few hundred meters. With this knowledge, the idea that one large station can report one single number representing an entire city is clearly faulty. A better understanding of who in a city is facing the consequences of poor air quality and how to best improve conditions lies in more geographically expansive data. Cities can invest in relatively inexpensive Internet of Things air quality sensors to gain this data or contract a company that offers the sensing as a service. There are also options available for contracting mobile and remote sensing of air quality to draw a more accurate picture of pollution patterns. Each method has its strengths and drawbacks, but all of these methods are generally trending toward delivering better quality data at a lower price. With this knowledge in hand, governments can craft effective, targeted policy to reduce pollution and protect public health in both current and future crises.