Air pollution clears in cities globally – new maps

30 March 2020, Brussels – A comprehensive set of satellite images reveal how air pollution has fallen dramatically in cities across the world due to Covid-19 lockdown measures. But the “damage is already done” for patients, warned the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA).

Lower nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) and particulate matter (PM) from road traffic may bring some relief to stricken Coronavirus patients. But chronic air pollution is a strong driver of lung and heart conditions, which are linked to higher Covid-19 death rates.

WHO advocate on health and air quality, Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, said: “I lost my daughter because of terrible levels of air pollution near our home. The issue comes with a lot of numbers and jargon, but really it is a simple matter of life and death. Sadly, we’re again being reminded of that during the Covid-19 outbreak.” 

EPHA acting secretary general, Sascha Marschang, said: “The damage is already done. Years of breathing in dirty air from traffic fumes and other sources will have weakened the health of all those who are now embroiled in a life or death fight against Covid-19. Yet even after the Dieselgate scandal, millions of non-compliant vehicles are still blackening the air. Cars and cities need to clean up and the EU’s new zero pollution goal is the perfect reason for taking determined action to dramatically lower air pollution levels when the COVID crisis is over.”



Images combine NO2 emission readings from 5-25 March in 2019 versus the same period in 2020, based on ESA Sentinel-5 satellite data, following recommended image processing guidelines. Image credits: ESA / EPHA / James Poetzscher

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Air pollution is the biggest environmental health risk in Europe, with the problem greatest in cities, according to the EEA. Particulate matter (PM), nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) and ground-level ozone (O₃) cause the most harm and lead to about 400,000 early deaths annually. One hotspot is Northern Italy, centre of Europe’s Coronavirus outbreak. Urban NO₂ pollution comes mainly from traffic, especially diesel vehicles, which are also a major source of PM. There has been a sharp rise in the proportion of diesel vehicles across Europe since the turn of the millennium, many of which have failed to comply with European air pollution standards. There have been 71 infringement procedures underway against EU countries for failing on air quality.



Zoltán Massay-Kosubek, EPHA Policy Manager for Clean Air and Sustainable Mobility, +32 499 430 468.



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