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Reduction in air pollution during pandemic has positive implications for our health, expert says

The City of Vancouver pictured from the corner of Ash and Broadway in April. (Bailey Nicholson, NEWS 1130 Photo)
Summary

The air quality in Metro Vancouver has improved in recent weeks as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic

The drop in air pollution is largely attributed to a reduction in vehicle emissions

The decrease in pollution has positive implications for overall health, an expert says

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – We’ve seen images of cities like Los Angeles and Delhi — their usually murky skies now clear blue during COVID-19 lockdowns.

It turns out air pollution is also dropping substantially in Metro Vancouver because of the pandemic.

“We have seen effects all across the country in the major cities. For example, particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide are substantially down in Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary, and Toronto has seen a reduction of about half. Those air pollutants are about half of what they were prior to the shutdown,” says Miriam Diamond, a professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Toronto.

The drop in air pollution is largely attributed to a reduction in vehicle emissions as people stay home during the virus outbreak and Diamond suggests the improved air quality is a silver lining, of sorts.

“The estimate right now is that there are 14,000 premature deaths that can be attributed to air pollution, annually. That was across Canada in 2019. That’s a huge number,” she tells NEWS 1130.

Related video: B.C. looking clearer with reduced air pollution

“It is people with existing respiratory ailments, but it goes beyond asthma and COPD. It also includes people who have heart attacks or other cardiovascular outcomes as a result of air pollution. Yes, air pollution causes problems when you breathe it in, but the effects are actually seen throughout your body and can trigger a heart attack.”

Diamond believes Canada is in better shape to deal with the COVID-19 crisis because of previous efforts to improve air quality.

“The message right now is that Canada is probably faring better with the rate of illness and mortality because, in general, our air pollution is better than in some of the globe’s mega-cities that are extremely congested and have very, very bad air quality. In those cities, residents are more vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19 and to other respiratory ailments, which will exacerbate the rate of illness and mortality,” she says.

“The fact we have invested in policy to [improve] our air quality is, in a sense, paying off now in reducing the severity of the effects. At least, in general, that is what the science tells us. We don’t have data specifically right now, but that is the lesson learned.”

While air quality in Canada’s cities will likely quickly shift back to pre-pandemic levels once isolation measures are lifted, Diamond feels we need to focus on how to keep pollution levels lower.

“I think that we are investing mightily in keeping the economy going – we have to do that – but now is the quintessential time to think about what will happen when we reopen the economy,” she argues.

“Are we going back to deaths and injury as a result of the climate changing? Now is the time to be acting on that. We can’t afford not to act on it, just as Canada could not afford to ignore the virus that has spread across our country. We have to act preemptively on climate change and on keeping the environment clean because that means saving lives.”