First EU lockdown prevented some 800 pollution-related deaths

First EU lockdown prevented some 800 pollution-related deaths
Pollution in Brussels. Credit: Belga

More than 800 deaths were avoided in Europe as a result of the improved air quality during the first lockdown in March 2020.

Research by the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS), the EU’s earth observation programme, and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, looked into the effect of government measures on air pollution levels in Europe and to what extent this reduced the number of premature deaths in the short-term.

The findings of the peer-reviewed study confirmed earlier, slightly lower estimates that improved air quality resulting from the governmental measures to contain the spread of the virus resulted in a total of 800 deaths being avoided across the continent.

“The findings are extremely significant as they consolidate the quantitative evidence that the Covid-related government measures had a direct effect on air pollution levels in areas across Europe,” Vincent-Henri Peuch, CAMS Director, said.

Paris, London, Barcelona and Milan were among the top six cities with the highest number of avoided deaths, with a decrease in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) — generated by road transport — of between 50% and 60% during the period.

Pin-pointing most effective measures

The research made a detailed estimate of emissions saved by the first lockdown and compared this to a business-as-usual scenario.

Scientists found that actions linked to everyday road travel as a result of schools and offices being closed had the greatest impact on lowering concentrations of NO2, thereby lowering deaths related to pollution. By contrast, international travel restrictions were found to have less effect.

Although previous studies already reported a decrease in air pollution levels following lockdowns during the first wave of the pandemic, these studies did not assess the role of different policy interventions, as was done by the CAMS study, which allows for a comparison between specific lockdown measures and the decrease in pollution levels in 47 European cities.

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By doing so, it identified the impact of different measures, specifically the effect of school/workplace closures, limitations on gatherings, and stay-at-home requirements, and how this reduced pollution-related deaths.

Researchers say that the findings can help design more effective air pollution strategies.

“Beyond the analysis of the mortality during the first months of the pandemic, this study could help shape future policy as the public health benefits of reducing pollution in our cities and the effectiveness of certain measures are clear to see,” Peuch said.

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