One of the defining images from the past year was the sight of the world’s great cities standing empty, as people around the globe were ordered to stay home to stop the spread of COVID-19.
The desertion of our cities led to a striking reduction in air pollution, with the Centre for Cities reporting a 60 per cent drop during the first lockdown in some areas of the UK and reports of 150 fewer air pollution-related deaths in Spain in the same period.
The physical impacts of air pollution are well reported – it’s now considered to be the world’s largest environmental health threat, accounting for almost nine million deaths every year and reducing life expectancy by an average of 2.9 years for people across the globe.
But the impact on mental health is often overlooked. A recent study in London found that increases in the key air pollutants – PM2.5, NOx and NO2 – are associated with up to 39% increased odds of common mental disorders.
As lockdown restrictions ease and our cities begin to come back to life, governments around the world must take action now to tackle the air pollution crisis and protect our physical and mental health.
An increasing threat
Air pollution levels have slowly crept up since the first lockdown and there is real concern that they may continue to increase beyond pre-pandemic levels. This is largely due to people using their cars more frequently because of a reluctance to return to public transport. YouGov research revealed that 60% of people in Brazil would use their car more following the pandemic and 40% of respondents in the US and Australia also said they expected to drive more.
This is a concerning trend and should be tackled as a matter of urgency. We must make public transport the quickest, cheapest and safest way to travel around our urban spaces or the rapid, dramatic drop in ridership will become permanent.
During the pandemic, urban spaces have opened up and become pedestrianised to enable cafes, bars and restaurants to serve customers outside. We should aim to lock in these changes to remove cars from our towns and cities longer term.
But we can and must do more. In the UK, we learnt in this week’s Queen’s Speech that the Environment Bill will return after months of delays caused by the pandemic, and is set to include a framework for tackling air pollution. That framework has to set legal limits on air pollution and funding must be made available to our towns, cities and public transport operators to make long-lasting change to tackle the issue.
Sleepwalking into a mental health crisis
The pandemic has placed real strain on the mental health of people around the world, who have had to adjust to living in increased isolation under lockdown.
A Swiss study found that many young adults, and young women in particular, experienced symptoms of mental illness during the first lockdown. More than half of young women and 38% of young men reported mild to severe symptoms of depression. The results relating to anxiety were similar.
A study co-led by City, University of London and UCL researchers found that those with pre-existing mental health conditions were especially impacted by the COVID-19 lockdowns, due to the loss of normal coping routines, barriers to accessing care, and the unequal impacts of the pandemic.
With air pollution expected to increase in urban spaces and a fragile public returning to our cities, there is potential for us to sleepwalk into a post-pandemic mental health crisis.
So what can be done by politicians to tackle this combined threat?
Tackling urban air pollution
Along with pedestrianizing our cities and introducing legal limits on air pollution, there are a host of other measures that could protect bodies and minds.
The first and most important step is to act smarter in how we monitor air pollution in urban spaces.
Currently most cities install a limited number of monitoring stations in a few areas where air quality is expected to be a problem. While this setup can indicate air conditions in a city, crucially, it lacks the ability to pick up on localised and/or short-lived pollution hotspots.
This is a profound issue as air pollution is extremely dynamic, fluctuating significantly in time as well as location. For example, Imperial College London’s regular pollution monitoring shows that air quality can be four times worse in some streets than others, even within the same district.
Well-intentioned local authorities rightly want to improve the air quality in their urban spaces. But their limited data only offers a tiny fragment of the picture necessary to make informed and impactful decisions – meaning significant sums of public money can be spent without addressing the issue.
This has to change, and it will only change by using monitoring technology that gives decision makers a full and detailed picture of the air pollution problem in their cities.
By creating a dense, high-resolution network of air-monitoring sensors and a visualisation and analytics software platform such as our AirIntel system, local authorities, health groups, businesses and communities will be able to assess air pollution data across an entire city.
The real-time data enables us to build an accurate and useful picture of exposure – creating a detailed map that can be used to gain a full understanding of pollution hotspots and provide real insight into which mitigations will have the most impact and best protect the public. It can provide information for health researchers or can be shared with the public to advise on the healthiest route for them to commute, or even where to live and work to reduce their exposure to air pollution.
Another solution, which can help to reduce the cars on our roads by encouraging people back into public transport, is the AirBubbl, our in-vehicle air-cleaning device, which removes more than 95% of airborne viruses and contaminated particulate matter, including airborne coronavirus. The AirBubbl floods the vehicle with over 30,000 litres of clean air every hour, creating and replenishing a clean air zone for the driver and passengers to keep them safe.
Rethinking our cities following COVID-19
Mental Health Awareness Week gives us an opportunity to reflect on a challenging year for all of us, but also to think about the society we want to create after the pandemic.
In much of the western world, we are on the verge of tackling the invisible threat of COVID-19, but we must act now to mitigate the long-term mental health impacts of the virus.
To do that we must reshape our cities and place health and wellbeing at their heart: by pedestrianizing public spaces, reducing traffic congestion, investing in public transport, and tackling the air pollution crisis before it’s too late.
Written by Matthew Johnson, chief science officer at AirLabs and professor of chemistry at the University of Copenhagen.