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Clear correlation between air pollution levels and COVID-19-related deaths

We examine the link between air pollution, and a higher number of deaths due to COVID-19.

In our article on climate change and human rights, we considered the issue of air pollution in the context of climate change and human rights. Since this article, coroner Philip Barlow has issued a Prevention of Future Deaths report (PFD) in the tragic case of Ella Kissi-Debrah, following his conclusion at the inquest that “air pollution” made a material contribution to her death. The PFD confirms the coroner’s view that there is no safe level of particulate matter and legally binding maximum levels should be lowered in the UK in line with World Health Organisation (WHO) limits. He also called for clearer information to be made available to the public about air pollution levels in their area. You can now read the government’s response to the PFD report.

Air pollution has recently attracted further headlines after it was confirmed that in areas of the UK with worse air pollution than others, the number of deaths due to COVID-19 in the first wave of the pandemic has been up to 70% higher than the national average. By contrast, in areas with lower levels of air pollution, in the same period there have been up to 40% fewer deaths than the national average.

The disparity has been attributed to the prevalence of nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide (both produced by car engines and heavy industry) and particulate matter 10 in the air. It is unsurprising therefore, that the number of deaths in cities is higher than those in more rural areas.

According to the Royal College of Physicians, there are 40,000 deaths each year in the UK attributable to air pollution. Studies have also shown that 8,000 UK schools are in areas where the levels of air pollution are worse than the recommended WHO limit. Air pollution is a well-known problem in the UK, and its connection with COVID deaths will increase pressure on the Government to tackle the levels of air pollutant and to accelerate the introduction of limits and legislation to enable them to do this.

Research recently published in The Lancet suggests that the link between COVID and air pollution is not exclusive to the UK. Poor air quality index has been connected with the spread of infection across India, with cities where there is over-use of fossil fuels recording a greater number of COVID infections. Air pollution is also cited as a catalyst for aggravating COVID cases and, as has been clear throughout the pandemic, in areas which have not had a substantial vaccination rollout, higher infections inevitably leads to a higher number of deaths.

It is hoped that the response to the study revealing this correlation in the UK, alongside the Government’s response to the PFD report, will help to reduce the number of deaths in any future pandemics.

For further information or to see how we can assist you, contact our local government solicitors or our occupational disease solicitors.