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Pollution

Dirty urban air expected to ramp up Europe's coronavirus death toll

Petrol and diesel emissions are at still at dangerous levels for people suffering chronic heart and lung problems.
Petrol and diesel emissions are at still at dangerous levels for people suffering chronic heart and lung problems. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes
3 min

While images from space show Italy’s emissions have plummeted in the wake of the coronavirus lockdown, the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA) is warning that dirty urban air is likely to increase the mortality rate in European cities. 

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Public health experts told the French press agency AFP that pollution from petrol and diesel vehicles that causes hypertension, diabetes and respiratory problems could provoke a higher overall coronavirus death toll.

EPHA Acting Secretary General Sascha Marschang said that governments made a mistake in prioritising the economy over health by “going soft” on the auto industry in the past, adding that reducing high-polluting vehicles needed to become an urgent priority.

"Governments should have tackled chronic air pollution long ago,” Marschang said. ”Science tells us that epidemics such as Covid-19 will occur with increasing frequency — so cleaning up the streets is a basic investment for a healthier future."

The European Respiratory Society warned that engine emissions were still at dangerous levels for those suffering chronic lung and heart conditions and who are less able to fight off respiratory problems brought on by viruses.

Satellite data by the European Space Agency has shown the shutdown in northern Italy led to a major reduction in nitrous oxide and small particulate matter in the air during the first two and a half months of 2020.

"Although there could be slight variations in the data due to cloud cover and changing weather, we are very confident that the reduction in emissions that we can see coincides with the lockdown in Italy causing less traffic and industrial activities," Claus Zehner, the mission's manager at ESA, said in a statement.

According to the European Environment Agency, air pollution leads to around 400,000 early deaths across the continent annually, despite European Union air quality directives.

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