An interconnected world
Today’s trending topic is the pandemic of Covid-19. Most of us are locked-down, following measures from our governments, desperately trying to control this worldwide virus. To ourselves it was obvious that the scale this pandemic reached was also caused by the insanity of this world where it is possible for planes to fly between Paris and New York around 50 times a day (1), or else the fact that in Europe we import 95% of our soy (2), mostly from the Americas…
Our world is just so interconnected that it is evident that a highly contagious virus could spread so easily.
Therefore, on the one hand, we started to make some research for a possible link between the spreading of a virus like Covid-19 and pollution. On the other hand, we wanted also to understand if there is a positive impact of this virus on the environment. But let’s focus on the first point, how comes that air pollution contributed to the spreading of Covid-19?
Can PM transport Coronavirus?
Since I was born in Lombardy, I thought that analyzing one of the worst cases of Covid-19 could have given us some interesting insights. This has proven to be true. According to a recent position paper of the SIMA (3), the Italian Society of Environmental Medicine, Covid-19 sticks to PM10 and PM2.5 flying around in full breach of the ‘social distancing’ rules. If this will be confirmed, it means that in polluted areas the virus can spread faster and further.
Let’s explain what’s PM. Particulate matter are microscopic particles of solid or liquid matter. They have impact on climate and are the most harmful form of air pollution, due to their ability to penetrate deep in the lungs and blood streams, unfiltered. Their sources can be natural (such as volcanoes or dust storms…) or caused by human activities (like the burning of fossil fuels in vehicles or even power plants…) (4). The particles called PM10 are the one with a diameter between 10 and 2.5 micrometers and the one called PM2.5 are the fine particles with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers (21).
SIMA’s paper is based on a previous study conducted by the universities of Beijing, Shanghai and San Diego that has proved that around 4% of PM10 and PM2.5 is composed by viruses, meaning that air pollution is the perfect carrier for viruses, even on long distances (5). SIMA’s researchers were looking for traces of the virus in particulate matter, and they finally found them in Lombardy, the most polluted region of Italy (6)… and the most affected by Covid-19.
Lombardy is this polluted because it is a rich and overpopulated Region where intensive animal farming, transportation and industrial activities are putting pressure on the environment. In winter, pollution reaches its peak due to domestic heating and other factors.
An Italian national emission found out a possible connection between illegal practices of manure spreading through aerosol, therefore dispersing ammonia in the atmosphere, and the peak in pollution registered in certain areas of the region (7).
And it might not be a coincidence that just a coincidence that the peak of pollution happened simultaneously with a period in which some farmers in the Region were recorded performing illegal spraying practices. We may argue that industrial and domestic heating, transportation and illegal agricultural practices might have contributed to this pandemic in an overpopulated area.
But there’s more, confirmed by a Northern American paper, we ‘re starting to understand that through exposure to particulate matter, we are more likely to have very severe symptoms and even to die from Covid-19 (11).
Indeed, this study, which data were collected from 3.000 US counties, shows that a small increase in long-term exposure to PM2.5 leads to a large increase in COVID-19 death rate… If you are interested in learning more about this, you can check-out the episode’s description with the links to all these studies.
The happy accident – Confinement measures are reducing pollution
We understood that pandemics and pollution are strongly linked, and this connection, funny enough, works both ways. Confinement measures are actually positively impacting the environment. This is a perfect example of serendipity: taking care of human health is producing a far more valuable result: a decrease in air pollution. The so-called “happy accident”.
And in our case it is even more ironic, because that was a cause of the problem itself.
Let’s go back to our first example, Lombardy. Here, the Regional Environmental Agency -ARPA- published a preliminary study confirming that air pollution is decreasing as lock-down measures are implemented. If a strong trend has not been found yet for the decrease in the concentration of PM in the atmosphere, researchers are running tests that show that the PM concentration would be much higher in this period if stay-home measures were not taken. But we have to keep in mind, as we mentioned before, that animal farming is an important source of PM, and this activity has not been touched by the lock-down measures. On the other hand, a significant trend has been detected for what concerns Nitrogen dioxide and Benzene concentrations that are dropping dramatically.
This is a direct result of the traffic ban that the health crisis has imposed.
Cars, indeed, are the first responsible for the emission of these two molecules which concentration in the atmosphere has never been this low in Lombardy for years (12).
Pollution is actually decreasing everywhere lock-down measures are taken, this is true for Europe as well as for China and elsewhere. But before to deepen in this topic it might be better to explain what Nitrogen dioxide and Benzene are.
Nitrogen dioxide and benzene are molecules which high concentration in the atmosphere is due to human activities such as certain industrial processes and motor vehicles emissions. The two are toxic to human, and can cause a variety of respiratory problems (13). We know for a while now, that pollution is responsible for about 16% of all deaths worldwide(*). Covid-19 adds up to a situation in which our respiratory systems are already weakened.
Finally, this same trend has been detected in China as well, where PM2.5 has diminished of around 20 to 30% due to the restrictive measures that the government has implemented (17).
The ARPA study mentioned before, also points out the causes of the decline in air pollution showing that the traffic ban is the first contributor. In fact, the implementation of the ban was responsible for the drop of motor vehicles traffic of 75% during the week days reaching an astonishing 90% on Sunday.
The demand for electricity also decreased substantially, a trend that is not only visible in Lombardy but also on the national scale starting from the 9th of March, when lock-down measure entered into force. This is due to the closure of public offices, shops and in part, of industries (18). Similar trends are recorded all over the world where restrictive measures have been taken.
Meanwhile, most of the industries and the agricultural sector are still running and polluting at their normal pace in order to feed us and produce essential goods.
However, intensive animal farming is responsible for as much the emissions of greenhouse gases as the whole transportation sector.
Why Covid-19 is telling us to eat less meat?
Meat production is, indeed, a highly polluting process, which industrialization is responsible for environmental disasters globally. And we are talking about deforestation in order to feed livestock, water pollution due to manure treatment, air pollution because animals release methane, nitrogen dioxide and other polluting gases in the atmosphere… Animal farming is draining lakes, polluting rivers, seas and ground waters, it is one of the first causes of biodiversity loss worldwide…
What’s the point here? We have seen how this pandemic is positively impacting our environment, this is great but experts agree on the fact that it won’t last long. Once the stay home measures will be over, transportation will go back to its normal pace injecting carbon and nitrogen dioxide in the atmosphere, damaging our respiratory systems and our environment.
However, some researchers from the Kyoto University are optimistic on the fact that behavioural changes towards sustainability can occur when one is obliged to deal with a restriction. They proved that when the closure of an important motorway obliged commuters to take public transport, once the road reopened many drivers kept commuting by train or buses (19).
This means that the same can happen with regards to smart working. Many enterprises and workers have been obliged to relate solely on this way of working which reduces the emissions from commuting, especially when meetings are far away from the worker’s home and require to take a plane or long distance transportation. If this behaviour is kept once lock-down measures will be over, we could save some greenhouse gases emissions!
But this works only if employers and employees had a good experience of smart-working, like Japanese commuters did with public transportation. Otherwise the old habits will be back soon.
The problem is that smart working is a viable option only for a few workers, and its impact on the environment is limited. This is why a greater change in our behaviour is required. And what is the best we can do to reduce our impact on the environment? Well is changing our demand in food, influencing the agricultural sector that has not been touched during the Covid-19 crisis. Avoiding meat, to reduce the impacts of intensive animal farming.
And here it’s why: 1) because it’s easy, or at least easier than avoiding to go to work, your boss won’t fire you if you become vegetarian; 2) you can do it starting from today, maybe just reducing your meat and dairy consumption; 3) it’s cheap! Meat substitutes are generally much cheaper and bring you the same amount of nutrients, and let’s say it frankly, this is also an economic crisis, it’s best to start saving money from now; 4) and last but not least, it is AMAZINGLY effective.
It is, indeed, a very effective way to fight pollution. Researchers from the University of Oxford have proved that adopting a diet conform to the global dietary guidelines, which means less meat than what the average person eats right now, would cut food related emissions by 29%, a vegetarian diet by 63%, and a vegan one by 70%. This is astonishing, knowing that food production is responsible for something like half of the emissions the world can afford if global warming is to be limited to less than 2 degrees Celsius, as the international community committed to (20).
Many are calling for a change in our society during this pandemic… What if the most effective way is just a change in our diets?
We really enjoyed the process that brought us to the creation of this first podcast of our project ETISM. Covid-19 gave us the time to think and collect a great amount of data, organise it in an interesting way, and hopefully to convince you to take action against pollution and for the preservation of our environment.
We are convinced that our behaviours can make a great difference. There is no small change.
However… we have much more to tell you, starting from meat production, that will be the topic of the next podcast… If you enjoyed this, follow us for much more towards sustainability.
And do not forget to visit our website at www.etism.org.
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(1) Weekly flights NY – Paris
(2) Soy Importation
(3) Position paper about Covid-19 in PM
(4) Wikipedia on PM
(21) Definition of PM on EPA website
(5) 4% of PM are viruses
(6) Covid-19 found on PM
(7) Regulations in agriculture
(8) Real time Air Quality
(9) Pg. 10/30 Agriculture produces particulate matter (Ammonia)
(10) Min. 27:00 Report on Covid-19 (Italian)
(11) US study about the relation between exposure to PM and Covid death rate
(12) Air pollution decrease in Lombardy
(*) Time’s Article on Pollution and Deaths
(14) Copernicus Program
(15) Decrease in PM2.5 in China
(16) Simulation on the Copernicus website to evaluate the decreased of air pollution
(17) Low levels of Nitrogen dioxide all over Europe
(18) Reasons of air pollution decrease in Lombardy
(19) An example of behavioral change towards sustainability
(20) Oxford’s study on diets’ environmental impact