Air Pollution & Covid-19

It has been ages since I last wrote a blog post.  Like many of you, I have been juggling not just my councillor role, but home schooling my 2 primary school aged boys, and doing what I can to help in the community. 

Many of our statutory committees at the council have not met since the beginning of March.  These meetings were originally postponed or cancelled due to lock down measures.  However, the technology and legislation are now in place to allow these committees to continue their valuable work.  We are yet to see many of them reinstated, and continue to push for this to happen so that democracy can resume (key decisions are still being made, and effective scrutiny is part of the governance structure of local authorities), but we have now been informed that Full Council will be back on the schedule.  This is really good news, for many reasons, not least because we finally get to debate and vote on my air pollution motion. 

Much of the air pollution we experience is created by the burning of fossil fuels.  Man has been creating pollution in the air ever since we learnt to make fire.  Today, a lot of the air pollution created by the combustion of fossil fuels comes from generating heat and electricity and powering vehicles.  This combustion process releases gases such as nitrogen oxides (NOX) and sulphur dioxide (SO2) as well as small particles.  NOX is the generic term for both nitrogen oxide and nitrogen dioxide.  These gases can also react with other pollutants in the air to create secondary pollutants such as ammonia.  It’s also important to note that small particles are also in our atmosphere due to other sources, such as dust and soil blown by the wind, including road dust. 

As I’ve written about before, it is the fine particles that are of most concern.  Particulates are defined not by what they’re made of, but their size.  Larger particles known as PM 10s can be seen as smoke or haze and our bodies natural defences filter them out, such as nose hair.  It is the smaller particulates, PM 2.5s, that are concerning as they are often carcinogenic.  They can penetrate much further into the body and enter the bloody stream causing all kinds of damage and are attributable to 4 out of 5 deaths from air pollution.  Whilst the World Health Organisation (WHO) has set maximum limits for PM 2.5s, no threshold has been identified below which no damage to health is observed.  As Public Health England state, “current levels of particulate air pollution in the UK…[has] a significant impact on the life expectancy of the population.”[i]

Local authorities are required by law to identify areas that either exceed or risk exceeding national objective levels of air pollution for particular pollutants, and develop action plans to meet those objectives.  So you may be wondering why I’m bringing up this subject again, and trying to address the issue of air pollution at a time of national and international crisis.  Well, I’ve been reading some very interesting research on the subject that links with the Covid-19 situation. 

In a research paper from Havard School of Public Health[ii], is a study of whether long-term exposure to PM 2.5’s is associated with an increased risk of Covid-19 deaths in the United States.  We already know that there is a greater chance of a severe outcome in patients with certain infectious respiratory diseases with a greater exposure to PM 2.5’s and that air pollution causes inflammation and cellular damage.  The study has made adjustments “for a wide range of socioeconomic, demographic, weather, behavioural, epidemic stage, and healthcare-related confounders.”  With all that taken into account, it found that an “increase of only 1 𝜇g/m3 (micrograms per cubic meter) in PM2.5 is associated with an 8% increase in the COVID-19 death rate.”  This means that “a small increase in long-term exposure to PM2.5 leads to a large increase in the COVID-19 death rate.” 

In another study from the University of Birmingham[iii], scientists have analysed the impact the lock down has had on air pollution in Wuhan, China, and how this has affected the death rate.  The study has found that nitrogen dioxide reduced by 63%, which in turn prevented 496 deaths in Wuhan itself, 3,368 in Hubei province and 10,822 in China.  The official death toll from Covid-19 in China is 4,634.

This leads to the question of how do they know how many lives have been prevented?  There is a lag between the exposure and effect of air pollution (i.e. people don’t suddenly just die), so it’s not a straight forward answer to define death rates from air pollution.  Deaths attributable to air pollution are calculated based on the total years of life lost.  For example, “in the UK, air pollution is shortening life expectancies by 3 to 7 months on average, amounting to 340,000 years lost across the total population.  Divide this by the average lifespan, and you get to a figure of around 40,000 deaths.”[iv]  However some people’s exposure shortens their lives by a day, whereas some could lose 10 years.  Estimating the number of deaths makes it much easier to communicate to the public.  It’s important to remember though that, whilst the mortality effect of air pollution is not instant, not only does air pollution shorten our lives, it can lead to chronic and debilitating illnesses that make those shorter years more painful.  If you want to read up further on how this is calculated, particularly in the UK for local authorities, Estimating Local Mortality Burdens Associated With Particulate Air Pollution[v] by Public Health England explains it all. 

I am sure that we’re going to see many more studies come out in due course, but I’m sure many of us can recount personally how the air has tasted so much cleaner whilst we’ve been on lock down.  These initial studies have shown the importance of continuing to enforce measures that clean up our air.  Therefore, I am proud to present a motion for our next Full Council meeting to take the next steps in tackling this issue.  Whilst I believe we can do more, this is a starting point, and we need to take the public with us on this journey.  Therefore, I am asking the council to:

  • Monitor the level of particulate matter 2.5 across the borough. 
  • Review the work done on No-Vehicle-Idling nationally in other local authorities and integrate this into an Action Plan for No-Vehicle-Idling zones covering the Wokingham Borough Council area with a view to implementing No-Vehicle-Idling zones, around as many schools in the Borough as possible, by the end of 2022, and in other identified areas such as taxi ranks and close to level crossings
  • Encourage local businesses to sponsor green walls on school buildings and tree planting near schools and the appropriate executive member includes this in their action plan.
  • Increase spending on active travel in future budgets, especially safe cycle lanes. 
  • Produce a strategy for implementing a car club scheme across the borough. 

This motion follows on from my colleague, Cllr Paul Fishwick’s motion last year for the creation of a low emission transport strategy (including an electric vehicle strategy) which is underway. I look forward to being able to update you with the outcome of the above motion in due course. 

Stay Safe! 




[iv] Smedley, Tim, Clearing The Air


2 thoughts on “Air Pollution & Covid-19”

    1. Hi Neil,

      If the strategy goes out to consultation then yes, but it’s not at that stage yet. I’ve got a meeting with the team soon where I’ve asked for an update as to progress as I’ve not seen anything of it yet.

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