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Air Pollution Mental Illness and Covid-19

Lockdowns imposed in response to Covid-19 forced millions of people to stay at home, businesses closed and a widespread hush descended. The major beneficiary of the controls has been the natural environment; in particular there has been a dramatic reduction in air pollution everywhere. But as countries begin to lift restrictions, road traffic levels are once again increasing, air and noise pollution rising.

Changes to working patterns and daily living have created a unique opportunity to re-imagine how we live and work. Central to any new pattern needs to be the environment; many people recognize this and the importance of not ‘going back’. Some cities in Europe are already responding positively (Milan, London, Bristol e.g.), proposing pedestrian only areas together with an increase in cycle lanes, and the results of a recent survey by the Automobile Association (AA) in Britain are encouraging. “Half of those polled said they would walk more and 40% intended to drive less…to maintain the cleaner air of the lockdown and protect the environment.” In addition around a quarter said they planned to (continue) to work more from home, as well as flying less.

Death by Breathing

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) 90% of the global population breathe filthy toxic air. The bulk of air pollution is the result of burning fossil fuels for heat and power generation (e.g. oil and coal power plants and boilers) and fuel combustion from vehicles – cars, motorbikes, lorries etc. All of which not only throw toxins into the air but also generate enormous levels of noise pollution.

Worldwide, air pollution is said to kill around nine million people a year, making it the fifth leading risk factor for death in the world. Children are particularly vulnerable; they inhale more airborne toxins than adults, tend to spend greater periods of time outside and are more active. The detrimental effects can be long lasting, affecting their physical and mental health as well their education.

Contaminated air is also a significant factor in a person’s susceptibility to Covid-19. Air pollution, particularly Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2), as well as Particulate Matter (PM)) – both of which are released by vehicles burning fossil fuels, causes and exacerbates respiratory complaints. A university study conducted in Germany found that of the total number of coronavirus deaths in 66 administrative regions of Italy, Spain, France and Germany, “78% of them occurred in just five regions, and these were the most polluted.”

The results of the research “indicate that long-term exposure to this pollutant may be one of the most important contributors to fatality caused by the Covid-19 virus…poisoning our environment means poisoning our own body, and when it experiences chronic respiratory stress [Covid-19 e.g.] it’s ability to defend itself from infections is limited.” A separate study in the US shows that even small “single-unit” increases in particle pollution in the years prior to the pandemic is linked with a 15% increase in deaths. Cleaner air in London or New York e.g., in the past could have saved hundreds of lives.

Air pollution affects everyone but predictably the poorest members of society, including people from black and minority ethnic (BAME) groups, are the most severely impacted, they appear also to be the most at risk from Covid-19. In multi-cultural Britain e.g., people in deprived areas have been dying of coronavirus at double the rate of those in affluent areas. And those from BAME backgrounds –making up around 13% of the UK population – account for a third of virus patients admitted to hospital critical care units. Similar patterns have emerged in other European countries with large minority populations as well as the US. Black Americans represent around 14 per cent of the US population but total 30 per cent of those who have contracted the virus. In Norway people born in Somalia have infection rates more than 10 times above the national average.

The social causes behind the figures are complex. Many people from BAME groups live in overcrowded housing in extremely polluted areas and work in high-risk low paid jobs. Diet among some BAME communities is poor and (in part as a result) there is a propensity to underlying health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, obesity and respiratory illnesses, all of which make people more vulnerable to Covid-19.

Poverty is the world’s biggest killer, and Covid-19 is, it seems, the most recent addition to the symptomatic causes of death for the poor, the vulnerable and people from minorities, which, in many cases are one and the same.

In addition to causing millions of deaths and a variety of respiratory conditions, air pollution is increasingly being linked to a range of mental health illnesses, including depression, bipolar, and, according to a study in the UK, psychotic experiences in children.

An estimated 300 million people in the world suffer from depression, a similar number are plagued by anxiety. Many aspects of contemporary living contribute to mental health illnesses, various studies in recent years show that air pollution is one of them. The finest particle pollutants are known to reach the brain via the bloodstream and the nose, The Guardian report, causing increased brain inflammation, “damage to nerve cells and to changes in stress hormone production, which have been linked to poor mental health.” Air pollution has also been shown to quadruple the risk of depression in teenagers and is being linked to dementia.

Together with noise pollution, studies show that filthy air feeds sleep apnea symptoms and may disturb sleep by exacerbating asthma, COPD, or other respiratory or chronic diseases. This in turn creates greater vulnerability to depression and anxiety, as well as the current Covid-19 virus.

Changing behavior

Air pollution is poison, we are literally breathing in toxic compounds that are making us ill, physically and mentally. Urgent and lasting steps are required to reduce to an absolute minimum the levels of air pollution. This requires humanity to drastically reduce its dependency on fossil fuels.

For this to happen there needs to be a major shift in attitudes, triggering a change in behavior and greater levels of environmental responsibility. Consumerism (including consumption of animal food produce) is the principle cause of the environmental emergency, including air pollution. Excessive, unnecessary consumption needs to stop, sufficiency not excess promoted and adopted as the guiding principle. Meat and dairy diets reduced and the trend towards plant based diets encouraged.

At the same time investment in renewable sources of energy generation and supply needs to be increased throughout the world. All unnecessary travel should be eliminated (including air travel), and (where practical) a strategic movement away from the car onto public transport – reliable and clean, cycling and walking. Public transport needs to be state owned and run as a service, not for profit. China, with 99% of the world’s total electric fleet, leads the way in the electrification of public transport, in addition, the Chinese government has invested heavily in electric cars and has set a target of 40% electric vehicles by 2025.

The beautification of our towns and cities (where over 50% of the world’s population now live) goes hand in hand with the reduction in traffic and the promotion of clean modes of transport. Bold imaginative initiatives are required that prioritize the environment and human welfare over corporate concerns. Whole sections of cities and towns, major streets and abandoned sites could be redesigned as peaceful green spaces. And while many fear the closure of retail outlets and the slow death of shopping streets, the possibility of converting these areas to parklands and gardens, present itself and should be embraced.

All flows from a shift in thinking. The environmental emergency is the greatest crisis facing humanity; with every new report published the scope and depth of the crisis becomes increasingly stark, the need for action more urgent. To date the complacency of governments and corporations, as well as large tracts of the public, has been astonishing and shameful; this must now change.

Covid-19 forced governments to act (albeit in many cases inadequately); the same sense of urgency needs to be applied to tackling air pollution, which, I say again, is responsible for at least nine million deaths a year, and the wider environmental emergency. The pandemic has given the natural environment a brief respite from human abuse; as countries ‘open up’, we have the chance to adopt a new responsible approach to living and not revert to old destructive ways.

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Graham Peebles is a British freelance writer and charity worker. He set up The Create Trust in 2005 and has run education projects in Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and India. 

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