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COVID-19 lockdowns prevented pollution-related deaths

Lower emissions during European lockdowns in 2020 could suggest how to improve health in cities longer term

by Laura Howes
January 27, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 4


In early 2020, country after country went into lockdown to slow the spread of COVID-19. Researchers now say that in Europe, these lockdowns may also have averted over 800 deaths related to air pollution (Sci. Rep. 2022, DOI: 10.1038/s41598-021-04277-6).

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Lockdowns led to dramatic cuts in emissions worldwide. Given the health risks of exposure to pollutants, researchers were curious whether this prevented pollution-related deaths in Europe. Rochelle Schneider at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and colleagues combined data from the European Commission’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service with statistical methods to link the restrictions in 47 European cities with changes in air quality, then estimated the impact on pollution-related mortality.

They found that measures that reduced road traffic—such as stay-at-home orders, and school and workplace closures—had the most substantial effects on nitrogen dioxide levels, which directly affect respiratory health. Strict lockdowns led to more-modest reductions in levels of fine particulates. Exposure to particulate matter is linked to a host of health problems and premature death.

Other analyses have tried to quantify the health benefits of lockdowns, but Schneider says the strength of the new work is in combining observations with simulations to quantify the impact of different changes. To improve public health, governments could lower NO2 by reducing road transport, but other interventions will be needed to help lower particulate levels.


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