Kate Langford, Programme Director, Guy's and St Thomas' Charity
Jun 02, 2020
I hope that we will have learnt many lessons from this pandemic, however, novel infectious diseases like COVID-19 will always be difficult to predict, contain and manage. Air pollution, on the other hand, is not novel. We have known about its impact on people’s health for decades and we know that we can do something about it and reduce people’s exposure to it.
The UK, like many other places around the world, has experienced a significant drop in some forms of air pollution since stay at home guidance was introduced in late March. Whilst nitrogen dioxide levels have decreased by as much as 50% in London, high levels of particulate matter and ozone have been recorded on some days, mostly as result of pollution from other countries and agriculture.
At the same time, we’ve seen studies linking air quality and higher death rates in urban places, such as London. Though more robust evidence is needed, a common thread in findings suggest that because exposure to air pollution is known to damage the heart and lungs, it could increase vulnerability to experiencing the most severe coronavirus outcomes.
As with each of the urban health issues we’re focused on, air pollution does not impact people equally. In fact many of the groups who are most affected by air pollution are also the groups most at risk of COVID-19 – people with existing conditions and older people. This is where our focus has been, and will continue to be, as we develop our programme on the health effects of air pollution.
As stay at home guidance was introduced, it was important that we really understood how the rapid changes to people’s lives were impacting on how they experienced living in inner-city areas, and their levels of concern about air pollution. We partnered with the charity Global Action Plan to capture people’s experiences, changing behaviours and awareness of air quality.
We heard that while there were many negative consequences, people living in London have noticed some benefits of lockdown. The air felt cleaner, roads were quieter, people felt able to cycle with their families for the first time in years.
"I continue to be stunned at how much of London has been opened up to us now we can cycle as a family with our 6-year-old. The difference between cycling on busy roads vs. filtered/separate cycle lane is like night & day though."
"Since I've been in #lockdown... I have noticed a significant reduction in me needing to use my inhaler. It's a massive plus for me, not needing to rely on it."
We have also seen indications that people are willing to change and adapt, including increased appetite for active travel like walking or cycling, as well as working from home more often and driving less.
Nationally, a quarter of people would like to use private vehicles less when lockdown is lifted and more than half of people said they would cycle or walk more after lockdown.
A national survey commissioned as part of this work found that 75% of people think clean air is more important than ever because Coronavirus can affect people’s lungs. Air quality was a greater concern for people living in urban areas.
47% of residents in Lambeth and 41% in Southwark are more concerned about the impact of air pollution on their or their family’s health now than before the coronavirus. This is higher than the national figure of 34%.
We think that the long-term effects of COVID-19 will impact on efforts to address the health effects of air pollution in unpredictable ways. In the short-term many of our local partners (schools, hospitals, grassroots organisations) are focused on the immediate response and will continue to be as they adapt and recover. In the medium term, people will have to change how they move around London – both to maintain some form of social distancing and to avoid a gridlocked city. In the longer term we expect that any economic recession will rightly increase the focus on existing income inequality – and more scrutiny on the impact that new policies or interventions are likely to have on the poorest.
While the world that will emerge from this crisis is unpredictable, we believe there are actions we can begin to take now that will help us to build back better air:
Before the crisis we knew that air quality impacted on the health of some people more than others. Our long-term goal to reduce the impact of air pollution on those whose health is most vulnerable feels even sharper and more important now. We need to protect people’s health for the long-run and we need to ensure that improvements in health, benefit those who most need it.
We are running a ten-year programme to address the health effects of poor air quality on people in our inner-city area. We are looking for solutions and focusing on groups whose health is most impacted by air pollution: children, older people and people with heart and lung conditions. To keep up to date with our work on the health effects of air pollution, sign up for our newsletter.
Programme Director: Kate Langford
12 March, 2020
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Is solving ai pollution within our reach? Dr Frank Kelly from King's College London shares how there’s a gap to be filled on testing interventions that both assess improvements to air quality and its impact on health.
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How does toxic air worsen the health of people with heart conditions? Jacob West from the British Heart Foundation shares how the time is now to clean up our dirty air and what we can all do to demand change for clean air.