Air pollution linked to COVID-19 deaths in Europe

Air pollution in Turin

Exposure to high levels of air pollution could increase the chances of dying from COVID-19. That’s according to the results of a new study.

By analysing coronavirus fatalities in 66 administrative regions in Italy, Spain, France and Germany, scientists found that of the 4,443 deaths, 3,487 were in five regions in northern Italy and central Spain.

Data shows these regions – which include the cities of Milan, Bologna, Turin, Venice and Madrid – are main nitrogen dioxide hotspots over Europe. The combination of pollution, surrounding mountain ranges and weather conditions make it difficult for dirty air to disperse from urban areas.

‘Important contributors to fatality’

Air pollution and COVID-19 deaths

Yaron Ogen, a researcher at the Martin Luther University in Germany, said: “These results indicate that the long-term exposure to this pollutant may be one of the most important contributors to fatality caused by the COVID-19 virus in these regions and maybe across the whole world.”

Earlier studies showed that exposure to nitrogen dioxide causes inflammation in the lungs. This latest research suggests that topography and atmospheric conditions could also play a part in the death rate.

Ogen continued: “Poisoning our environment means poisoning our own body and when it experiences a chronic respiratory stress, its ability to defend itself from infections is limited.”

‘This new study is worrying’

Air pollution in Milan

Jenny Bates, an air pollution campaigner at Friends of the Earth, told the Guardian: “This new study is worrying. We know nitrogen dioxide is a toxic gas that inflames the lining of the lungs and reduces immunity to lung infections, so it may not be surprising that people who have suffered in areas with high levels of nitrogen dioxide could be more susceptible to coronavirus.

“This is all the more reason to keep traffic and pollution levels down as much as possible now and get out of this terrible situation with a view to fewer but cleaner vehicles on the road.”

These findings are backed by similar studies across the world. Research in the United States suggests COVID-19 death rates increase by around 15 percent in areas with even a small increase in fine-particle pollution levels.

Air pollution in the UK has dropped dramatically since lockdown measures were enforced in March. Some cities have seen a 60 percent fall in airborne nitrogen dioxide.

Air pollution nosedives due to coronavirus lockdown

Empty London street during lockdown

Air pollution has dropped dramatically since the UK went into lockdown. Some cities have seen a 60 percent fall in nitrogen dioxide (NO2), according to the BBC.

This follows yesterday’s news that the levels of NO2 have almost halved in Southampton, with the cleaner air attributed to the reduction in traffic and flights, plus the suspension of cruises. The city is the cruise capital of Europe.

The UK has been in lockdown for two weeks in an attempt to halt the spread of coronavirus. As of yesterday, 55,242 people have tested positive for COVID-19, with 6,159 confirmed deaths.

The government has urged people to avoid travelling unless it is essential. Indeed, people are advised to only go outside for food, health reasons or work (but only if you cannot work from home).

This has led to reduced traffic, especially in towns and cities. The BBC has analysed air pollution since 23 March, compared to the same period in 2019. Most of the air quality monitoring stations have recorded a 50 percent fall in NO2 emissions.

BBC air pollution table

‘Much lower levels of NO2’

William Bloss, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Birmingham, told the BBC: “What we’re seeing in the lockdown… is the reductions in road traffic in our cities translating into much lower levels of NO2.

“We’re seeing the reductions are greatest in areas most heavily-influenced by road traffic, so city centres, roads in London, Birmingham and other urban centres.”

Environmental campaigners are using the plummeting levels of air pollution to call for permanent change. Jenny Bates of Friends of the Earth, said: “Seeing this drop in air pollution shows that less traffic can quickly lead to cleaner air.

“Once this dreadful situation is over, we don’t want to rush to go back to where we were or worse, and we can’t have an accelerated return to business as usual. We can have a better, cleaner future for ourselves and the planet.”

London during lockdown

‘Best possible air quality’

In a separate development, the Air Quality Expert Group, working on behalf of Defra, is searching for links between air pollution and the coronavirus. Questions asked include how might public exposure to air pollution have changed as a result of the lockdown, and how might altered emissions affect summer air quality.

John Newington, head of evidence, air quality and industrial emissions, Defra said: “Defra would ask the research community to support the UK government in its efforts to manage air pollution risk and impacts during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Evidence and insight into possible changes to the factors that control air pollution will help us to refine and improve how we deliver the best possible air quality for the UK.”

September launch for the Leeds Clean Air Zone

The Leeds Clean Air Zone (CAZ) will go live on 28 September 2020. The CAZ was due to come into operation in January, but Leeds City Council has confirmed the new date.

From 28 September, buses, coaches, heavy goods vehicles (HGVs), taxis and private hire vehicles that fail to meet minimum emissions standards will be charged for entering certain parts of the city.

Non-compliant HGVs, buses and coaches will be charged £50 per day for entering the CAZ, with taxis and private hire vehicles subject to a £12.50 daily charge. Leeds City Council says the money will be used for covering the cost of the scheme, supporting owners of affected vehicles and the creation of other air improvement measures in the city.

Around 300 cameras will be placed at 100 junctions throughout the city.

Since plans for a CAZ were announced, the city has seen ‘significant improvements in air quality’ as operators prepare for the zone’s introduction. The council says air pollution on the A660 has fallen below legal limits as a result of lower emission buses being used on the route.

To date, £5.4 million has been awarded to support local businesses switch to cleaner vehicles, with an additional £3.1 million earmarked to help other operators.

Leeds Clean Air Zone map

As can be seen from this map, the Leeds CAZ extends from Farsley in the west to Colton in the east, and Moortown in the north to Hunslet in the south. These are approximate boundaries, so you’re advised to check the map for more information.

The Holbeck (Jack Lane), Pudsey and Seacroft industrial areas will be exempt from CAZ charges until after 31 December 2024.

‘Time for businesses to prepare’

James Lewis, the council executive for air quality, said: “Having been forced to delay the introduction of the zone last year due to delays to government systems, I am delighted that we are now able to confirm a go-live date for the Leeds Clean Air Charging Zone giving affected businesses clarity to help them prepare for the zone’s introduction.

“We’re already seeing improvements to our city’s air quality thanks to the thousands of drivers that have already switched to less-polluting vehicles. As more businesses switch to cleaner vehicles to avoid charges we will no doubt continue to deliver even more improvements.

“With six months before the zone takes effect, it is now time for businesses to prepare. I would strongly encourage those who may be affected to check their vehicle and find out more about the financial support and exemptions available by visiting our website.”

The Birmingham Clean Air Zone is expected to launch in July. Last week, the council opened applications for temporary exemption permits. Click here to read more about Clean Air Zones.

Uber and taxi users would pay more for an electric ride

People willing to pay more for electric taxis

The majority of Uber and taxi drivers would be willing to pay extra for a cleaner ride. That’s according to a recent YouGov poll.  

It found that more than half (52 percent) of customers in seven European countries would be happy to pay a premium to travel in an electric car. An additional 15-20 cents per km, to be precise. That’s the equivalent of 13 to 17p per kilometre travelled.

Younger users (18-24) are more likely to embrace an additional charge for a zero-emission taxi. Six out of 10 said they’d pay more.

There’s an increasing awareness of Uber’s impact on pollution. In London, 44 percent of the respondents to the online survey said Uber has a negative impact on the air quality in the capital. Similarly, a third of Parisians said Uber is having a negative effect on pollution levels in the city.

Yoann Le Petit, new mobility expert at campaigning group Transport & Environment (T&E), said: “Uber’s customers are wise to its air pollution and are even willing to chip in for a clean ride. Now Uber must do its fair share for the climate and our health. Thus, the #TrueCostOfUber campaign urges the company to electrify its fleet in its 10 biggest European cities by 2025.” 

Uber London emissions

T&E says the emissions of the taxi and ride-hailing market in London and Paris is the equivalent of adding an extra 250,000 privately owned cars to the road. French government data shows that 90 percent of the registered private hire vehicles are powered by a diesel engine.

Uber has 3.6 million users in London and 2.7 million customers in France. T&E is urging candidates in the Mayor of Paris campaign to commit to reducing Uber emissions if elected.

‘Uber has no excuse’

Olivier Blond, president of Respire, the national association focused on air quality improvement, said: “With 78 percent of young people saying they’re ready to pay a little more for zero-emissions cars, Uber has no excuse for not upping its game, abandoning diesel now and switching to 100 percent clean vehicles.”

The sample size of the YouGov survey was 12,523 adults from the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Netherlands and Belgium. 

Tyre emissions 1,000 times WORSE than exhausts

Tyre emissions can be 1,000 times those allowed from exhausts

With modern diesel exhaust emissions lower than ever, attention is turning to other forms of pollution. More specifically, tyre wear.

According to Emissions Analytics, tyres are a major contributor to arguably the biggest source of pollutant emissions from cars today: non-exhaust sources.

This is dust and particulates that are emitted from our tyres constantly – and our brakes when we use them. This currently unregulated source of pollution contributes to particulates in the air, as well as microplastics in the ocean.

Excessive tyre emissions: theory and testingTyre emissions can be 1,000 times those allowed from exhausts

The UK Government’s Air Quality Expert Group recently concluded that “non-exhaust emissions are recognised as a source of ambient concentrations of airborne particulate matter, even for vehicles with zero exhaust emissions of particles”.

Emissions Analytics theorised that, based on 1.5kgs of mass being lost per tyre over a 30,000-mile life, a car emits 200 milligrams of tyre particulate matter every kilometre. At that level, tyre emissions would be 22 times higher than the permitted levels in current exhaust gas regulations, which are 4.5mg/km.

In testing, it stacked the odds up in case practice yielded immeasurably low results. Low quality tyres, high speeds, intense cornering, high load in the car and a poor surface quality, were intended to help produce a measurable result. The results were shocking – 5.8 grams per kilometre lost. That’s 29 times the hypothesised result, and more than 1,000-times the allowed particulate emissions from an exhaust pipe. 

Tyre emissions can be 1,000 times those allowed from exhausts

This is a worst-case scenario, though many real-world factors weren’t influencers. The tyres were appropriately inflated, whereas many aren’t in the ‘real world’. Surface quality varies from good to bad. Speed limits are often broken and, of course, budget tyres are a commonplace cost-saving measure made by motorists, against expert recommendations. 

Much of what comes off our tyres are comparatively large chunks, compared with the ultrafine ‘soot’ that comes from exhausts. PM10 or above, up to 10,000nm in size, is however joined by particles down to 10nm, due to the heat generated by tyres when in use. For reference, tailpipe emissions are described as ‘mostly below 100nm’. Regardless, even including larger chunks, the resulting pollution is both ground and watercourse-based microplastics (the larger bits) and fine particles that comprise air quality.

These results are worrying, in a world where heavy SUVs are proliferating on ever-more aggressively-worked tyres that are growing in size by the year. It’s Emissions Analytics’ belief that tyres won’t be unregulated for too much longer.

One in 19 urban deaths linked to air pollution

deaths linked to toxic air pollution cities

A new study estimates that more than one in every 19 deaths in UK cities is related to air pollution. That makes  air pollution 25 times more deadly than road traffic incidents, in terms of the numbers killed.

The Cities Outlook study, conducted annually by Centre for Cities, refers specifically to urban areas, where the levels of PM2.5 particulates are mostly well above World Health Organisation guidelines. At present, these are not illegal levels in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Overall, 62 percent of roads that are monitored in UK cities exceed WHO guidelines for PM2.5. And 19 of the UK’s city road networks breach those guidelines entirely. That means all city streets are above safe pollution levels – an issue that affects 14 million people across Britain.

‘Transport is a significant, but not sole contributor’

deaths linked to toxic air pollution cities

Centre for cities, while highlighting the issue around transport emissions, cited other causes for high levels in cities. Fuel burning, such as in wood burning stoves and coal fires, is claimed to account for half of PM2.5 particulates in urban areas. Not all is locally generated either, as the south of England (a problem area) suffers with emissions blown in from Europe.


Cities with the most and least estimated PM2.5-related deaths
Most deathsLeast deaths
RankCityPM2.5-related deaths, of total deathsRankCityPM2.5-related deaths, of total deaths
Deaths in people aged 25 and over, 2017

‘Extra money and stricter guidelines’ 

“More than half of people in the UK live in cities and large towns,” said Andrew Carter, chief executive of Centre for Cities.

“Cities Outlook 2020 shows that they are having a damaging effect on their health, with air pollution killing thousands of people living in cities every year.

deaths linked to toxic air pollution cities

“Cities should be at the centre of the fight against toxic air and councils should take the steps needed, including charging people to drive in city centres and banning wood burning stoves.

“To help the Government needs to provide extra money and introduce stricter guidelines. The deadly levels of polluted air we’re breathing are legal across most of the UK. This needs to change. Failure to act now will lead to more deaths.”

New cat’s eye-style filters could tackle pollution

Cat's eye toxic air filters

The war on toxic air pollution is yielding some clever ideas. The latest is suction fans embedded in the road in the same manner as cat’s eye reflectors. These would be hooked up to a filtration system to clean the air.

The idea is that low energy fans installed in the road can quite literally suck toxic air into piping. That would then feed into a filter unit at the side of the road. It’d be around the size of a large bin.

Cat's eye toxic air filters

Areas to benefit the most from this would be junctions with lots of stationary traffic. The system is being developed by Hertfordshire-based company Pollution Solution.

The company claims it could remove at least 30 percent of toxic pollutants from the air. That includes engine pollution like nitrogen oxide, as well as brake and tyre particulates. The air that leaves the filter ‘bins’ is said to be 99 percent clean. The company says the system can run mostly on solar power, triggering only when it senses cars have stopped.

Initial trials of the technology could take place in problem pollution areas in East London. Engine idling hotspots would be targeted. School pick-up and drop-off areas, busy junctions and pedestrian crossings are cited as ideal places to start.

Pollution Solution founder Thomas Delgado is realistic about what can be achieved with the technology and the specific areas where it will be most effective. With that said, he’s also clear that this or something to the effect of cleaning air quality is necessary now, given the estimated 40,000 premature deaths per year that can be linked to air pollution.

‘Electric cars are great’

Cat's eye toxic air filters

Delgado said: “This is only going to be effective at busy junctions but all the information we have is that those hotspots are the areas that really need to be tackled.

“Electric cars are great but as it stands today, they are not a feasible option for the majority of consumers or companies and air quality needs to improve now.

“There are talks of banning the sale of fossil-fuelled vehicles by the year 2040 but if we don’t take steps in the interim it is inevitable that people will die unnecessarily.”

Dirty vehicles to be banned from Geneva

Dirty vehicles to be banned from Geneva

A new environmental zone will see the dirtiest vehicles banned from the centre of Geneva, Switzerland, and the surrounding area.

From 15 January 2020, a temporary zone will be activated when air pollution in the Swiss city is at its highest. It will be operational from 6am until 10pm.

Vehicles will be measured on their environmental performance and must display one of six coloured Stick’Air vignettes. Green is for zero emission vehicles, while grey is for the least environmentally friendly cars. The emergency services and drivers with disabilities are exempt from the scheme.

Initially, vehicles displaying the grey vignette will be banned from the environmental zone during the period of peak pollution. If the smog persists, the ban will extend to vehicles showing the brown sticker, then orange, yellow and purple.

The stickers cost 5 Swiss francs (£4) and are valid for the life of the vehicle. Drivers who do not display a vignette or enter the city during the smog alert will be fined 500 francs (£400). Commercial vehicles will be granted a two-year transitional period to comply with the new law.

Under the regulations, the authorities could also introduce an 80km/h (50mph) speed limit on surrounding motorways, free public transport to encourage locals and tourists to leave their cars at home, and a ban on outdoor fires.

Geneva clean air stickers

‘Right to breathe healthy air’

Antonio Hodgers, a Geneva councillor, said: “We have adopted a compromise between economic freedom and the right to breathe healthy air.”

Nearly 500,000 people live in the canton of Geneva, with around 200,000 people living in the city. This is the first environmental zone of its kind in the country, although Geneva’s proximity to France and Italy, plus the fact that it is home to more than 130 multinational companies, makes it a particularly high profile case.

It also plays host to a major international motor show

The stickers can be purchased from council offices and petrol stations. More information can be found here.

Car tyres a ‘stealthy source‘ of ocean pollution

Car tyres a stealthy source of ocean pollution

“Tyres sit uniquely at the intersection of air quality and microplastics.” That’s the opinion of Emissions Analytics, which is seeking to raise awareness of the impact vehicles tyres are having on our oceans.

Think of plastic waste and most people will picture bottles, packaging, bags – maybe even tea bags and clothes. But tyres are a major source of microplastics found in our oceans, and the problem is only going to get worse.

Emissions Analytics names three emerging threats: budget tyres, electric vehicles and SUVs.

According to an International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) study in 2017, between 15 and 31 percent of the 9.5 million tonnes of plastics released into the oceans each year could be primary microplastics.

Two-thirds of which come from the washing of synthetic textiles and the abrasion of tyres while driving.

In the same year, a study by Pieter Jan Kole at the Open University of The Netherlands put the figure at 10 percent. “Tyre wear and tear is a stealthy source of microplastics in our environment, which can only be addressed effectively if awareness increases,” was the rather stark conclusion.

‘Big chunks of plastic’

Car tyre wear

The lack of awareness stems from a general misunderstanding of the composition of a modern tyre. “Tyres are essentially yet more big chunks of plastic,” says Friends of the Earth. “When they break down they behave and persist like other plastics in the environment.”

Emissions Analytics claims that over the course of 12,500 to 31,000 miles, a typical tyre will shed 10 to 30 percent of its tread rubber into the environment. Particles will end up by the roadside or washed into drains, which in turn takes the pollution into rivers and the ocean.

Just as concerning is the fact that Friends of the Earth estimates that up to 10 percent of tyre wear is generated as airborne particles, which contribute to air quality issues and lung problems.

The IUCN report refers to data that says while there is no reliable information on the transfer of microplastics from tyres to the world’s oceans, both Norwegian and Swedish researchers have pointed out that a large fraction of particles found in the sea seem to originate from car tyres.

Tyres and our oceans: emerging threats

SUV tyre next to the water

What about the emerging threats?

Emissions Analytics points to the fact that budget tyres wear rapidly and have high emissions. It also says that the instant torque and higher kerb weights associated with electric vehicles will increase wear rates, adding to the pollution issue.

The increased weight is also a factor associated with SUVs, along with the typically larger wheel sizes adopted by such vehicles. The larger the tyres, the greater the problem.

“On this basis we think tyres are set to be scrutinised and regulated more, and perhaps also reinvented for electric cars to perform well in durability and noise. There will be opportunities and threats that arise from these changes,” says Emissions Analytics.

It is also calling for a review of the European tyre labelling, with the environmental impact added to the ratings for rolling resistance, wet grip and noise.

Tyre fitter with tyre label

Friends of the Earth wants to see a government-backed test to identify how resistant each type of tyre is to wear and tear – with clear labels for buyers. It says tyres with the highest rates of tread abrasion could be banned from sale.

Other suggestions include a tyre levy to help tackle the problem of microplastic pollution, more efficient use of roadside gully pots used to catch debris, and increased road cleaning.

The problem isn’t going to go away. As the IUCN points out, calls for a ban on microbeads in cosmetics are welcome, but this source is responsible for just two percent of primary microplastics. The impact of tyres is far, far greater.

In the UK, we generate up to 19,000 tonnes of microplastics tyre pollution, which finds its way into our waterways, rivers and seas every year. Something to think about next time you’re changing a worn tyre.

Motorists want tougher penalties for idling drivers

Tougher fines for idling drivers

There are calls for drivers who leave their engines running when parked to be fined.

Seventy-two percent of the drivers questioned in a new survey want local councils to tackle the problem, while 44 percent believe officials should have the power to issue fines if they refuse.

Under section 42 of the Road Traffic Act 1988(4), a driver can be fined £20 for a stationary idling offence, but few councils enforce this.

In June, the government announced a public consultation on proposals to impose tougher penalties on idling drivers.

Then transport secretary Chris Grayling said: “We are determined to crack down on drivers who pollute our communities by leaving their engines running, particularly outside school gates where our children are breathing in this toxic air.

“Putting a stop to idling is an easy way to drive down dangerously high levels of pollution, reducing its impact on the environment and our health.”

Cost ahead of the environment

Traffic in Bristol

Around a quarter of the drivers surveyed by the RAC believe motorists should be told to switch off WITHOUT issuing a fine, whereas two percent think offenders should be fined without any warning.

It would appear that drivers are becoming more sensitive to the issue of vehicle emissions and the impact on air quality in our towns and cities. Indeed, more than half of the drivers surveyed said they are more concerned than they were three years ago.

However, when asked WHY they would not leave their engines idling when parked, a financial benefit was put ahead of the environment. Thirty-seven percent said they switch off to save a little on fuel, while 35 percent said they do it to improve air quality.

Just under a third claim it never occurs to them to turn off.

Like the carrier bag charge

delays and congestion up in 2018

Nicholas Lyes, RAC head of roads policy, said: “It is clear from our research that the vast majority of drivers are far more aware of the impact of vehicle emissions than they were three years ago.

“They are conscious of pollution from parked vehicles running their engines needlessly to the point they want to see local councils taking some form of action against those who do this. At the very least they would like a council official to speak to those who do it and ask them to switch off.

“Councils already have the powers to deal with this problem, but few are currently doing so. Many of the drivers we questioned would like to see some firm action taken against offenders. This is no doubt needed to bring about a change in behaviour.

“You could liken the current situation with engine idling to that of taking your own carrier bags to the supermarket: everyone knew it was the right thing to do, but few of us did it until a compulsory charge was introduced. While the law is already in place for idling, enforcement is limited, if not non-existent.

“The presence of enforcement officers and ‘no engine idling’ signs, complete with penalties, must be the next step in making our urban environments better for everyone who lives, drives and works in them.”