AQNUK collaborated with SAQN and the UKIEG to convene an online workshop, bringing together air quality, virology, aerosol, metrology, climate, health and built environment researchers to determine the current state of knowledge on the possible interactions between air quality and COVID-19, ambient environmental conditions indoors and out, establish evidence gaps and make recommendations for a necessary rapid response and longer term research agenda.
This event was open to any researchers in industry, policy, third sector or academia, particularly those based in the UK or affiliated with a UK research network. We welcomed an international audience, including those able to contribute expertise to address COVID-related air quality challenges of national (UK) importance.
We had 239 registrations in total, of which 178 joined us online for the event live. 147 registered delegates took part in the discussion board.
It is clear that further interdisciplinary work is needed to tackle the questions raised at the workshop, and that more research is needed, particularly relating to indoor and outdoor air quality and the interaction between them.
For more on the arising calls to action and critical knowledge gaps see below or download the executive summary published by SAQN in July 2020. This document identifies the key knowledge gaps relating to air quality and COVID-19 and recommends action to researchers and research funding organisations.
The three organising networks (AQNUK, SAQN, UKIEG) will be working with network members to act on these knowledge gaps and seek to contribute to the research in these areas.
14:00 Part 1: Welcome and Context
Chair: Dr Marcella Ucci, UCL and the UKIEG secretary
UKRI Clean Air Champions
Professor Stephen Holgate, Medical Research Council Clinical Professor of Immunopharmacology at the University of Southampton Professor Martin Williams, Head of Science Policy and Epidemiology team at King’s College London and former Head of the Air Quality programme at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Dr Jenny Baverstock, Senior Collaboration Fellow at the University of Southampton.
Brief summary of CV-19 context in the UK
Professor Catherine Noakes, University of Leeds
Sani Dimitroulopoulou, PHE
Professor Alistair Lewis, Defra
Air Quality Expert Group
Dr Mike Holland, Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants COVID Group
Scenarios to be considered – pandemic & concurrent risks
Dr Matthew Hort, Head Atmospheric Dispersion and Air Quality, and SPF Clean Air Lead, Met Office
14:50 Part 2: State of knowledge
Present state of evidence and knowledge
Key knowledge gaps
Critical knowledge gaps
15:20 Part 3: Research Community Action
Ideas for research action to tackle the most critical gaps
Lessons to be learned for air quality and communicable and non-communicable diseases research
15:55 Summary and next steps
16:00 Meeting closes
Funding Opportunities for Air Quality & COVID-19
Below are some of the current funding opportunities available to researchers looking at the relationship between Air Quality and COVID-19. If you are aware of other relevant funding calls, please email email@example.com
NERC CV-19 public engagement
The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) is inviting proposals for public engagement with environmental science which understand, address or mitigate the impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak. NERC intends to fund projects costing up to £10,000 each with a total budget of £50,000. Successful projects must be completed by 31 March 2021. The closing date for proposals is 16:00 Hours (BST) Wednesday 13 May, 2020 via email. Full details of the funding call.
UKRI open call
This is an open call and proposals can be in any part of the UKRI remit. For those whose proposal is at least 50% NERC, welcome to contact NERC’s healthy Environment team. A representative can talk through with a prospective applicant the proposal idea– please email firstname.lastname@example.org – NERC are always happy for the community to get in touch.
Information on the UKRI open call can be found the UKRI website.
For proposals around CV-19 that have a strong health element, there is also an MRC/DHSC rolling call open, details of the call can be found on the MRC website.
NERC are anticipating opening another funding opportunity for research and innovation consortia to generate new knowledge and tools to influence policy and regulation. NERC ran scoping workshops in January and February around a UKRI Consortia call. The read-out report of this workshop will be published by NERC.
The Clean Air Champions act as thought leaders, flag bearers, and strategy owners for the new UKRI Clean Air programme. They bring together outstanding researchers in atmospheric, medical and social science in joined-up thinking and ground-breaking solutions to help create a sound health-based policy, innovative business and trusted public information for the benefit of current and future generations.
The executive summary of the arising research priorities and knowledge gaps and calls to action was published by SAQN in July 2020 and can be downloaded. Note: this document reflects the points discussed at the online workshop on 20th May. The calls to action do not necessarily represent the views of the individual speakers involved in the plenary session.
Calls to action arising from the event include:
improve connections between existing air quality emission generating and exposure models and data for understanding of health and societal impacts before, during and after lockdown, including use of data satellite data
better and more comprehensive data on air quality and exposure, especially for indoor environments
management strategies for ventilating buildings and other public enclosed and semi-enclosed spaces to combat exposures to poor air quality and reduce viral transmission risk in different seasons, and especially in winter.
policies and tools for transforming positive shorter-term changes in behaviours with co-benefits for the environment, into longer-term collective lifestyle and workplace changes.
the testing of COVID-19 policies for, and to mitigate the risk of, unintended consequences on air quality emissions/exposures, particularly for socio-economically disadvantaged groups.
Critical knowledge gaps requiring further science effort include:
how environmental conditions affect the virus survival, transmission and exposure mechanisms, as well as associated health outcomes;
the extent, significance and overall net effect of changes in emission and exposure patterns, resulting from current lockdown policies and emerging new patterns and uses of workplace, domestic and leisure environments; and
the longer-term impacts on air quality of societal, environmental and economic changes arising from COVID-19, particularly on social inequalities and efforts to tackle and adapt to our changing climate
Extract from the executive summary document:
Calls to action
Based on the research priorities and associated suggestions arising from the discussion, the following Calls to Action were formulated, which are primarily relevant to researchers and research funding organisations, with some aspects being also relevant to local and national government:
Better and more comprehensive data on air quality and exposure is urgently needed, especially for indoor environments. This will require:
Building upon and broadening the current urban-focused air quality research supersites; setting up a suite of nation-wide representative sites, indoors and out, paired wherever possible, in urban and rural locations, for long-term multi-observation monitoring of air quality.
Agreeing on minimum standards and harmonised protocols for monitoring indoor air, to be adopted in separate monitoring campaigns and individual research projects;
New networks of intensive, and, or, high resolution monitoring stations in representative indoor public spaces are needed to understand the occurrence and transmission pathways of the virus in indoor environments, and any potential links with environmental factors including air pollutants. This will necessitate active sampling of air, as well as the swabbing of surfaces and could include other forms of sampling;
Running citizen science projects using low-cost sensors in homes and schools to help build a better understanding of indoor air quality and its significance for public health, to increase public awareness.
Connecting existing air quality models and data to inform predictions:
Optimise collection and unify curation of the many types of relevant air quality models and data on both emission generating activities and exposure. For example, any data regarding the lockdown period, to help model emissions and, or, exposures and the associated health and societal impacts before, during and after lockdown. This could help inform approaches in the eventuality of a further wave of infection. Such information could include data from smart meters, household surveys, time use diaries, any other relevant personal exposure studies alongside outdoor pollution data from established and new air quality ground-based monitoring instruments and other Earth observation devices such as satellites.
Air quality data and models should be used to help address questions such as:
a) What is the net impact of working from home, in terms of indoor/outdoor emissions and personal exposure?
b) Does exposure to poor air quality make people more susceptible to COVID-19 and does it impact the severity of disease? and/or;
c) Are any links between COVID-19 incidence and air pollution attributable to other factors such as housing conditions and social inequality?
Control strategies indoors and potential links with other issues
There is emerging evidence that increased ventilation, bringing external air into buildings, may help control viral transmission but information is needed on optimal ventilation rates versus indoor occupancy levels.
Optimum ways should be identified of managing building ventilation through different seasons, and especially in winter, in the context of the UK’s Net Zero commitment and inequalities such as fuel poverty. Consideration must be given to tailoring such strategies to mechanical and natural ventilation, whereby the vast majority of buildings in the UK are naturally ventilated;
Interventions such as regulation, standards and policies are needed to ensure that buildings and other public enclosed and semi-enclosed spaces (e.g. transport forms and stations) are designed/retrofitted and managed to combat exposures to poor air quality and reduce viral transmission risk.
Policies and tools for harnessing co-benefits; transforming shorter-term changes in behaviours into longer-term collective lifestyle and workplace changes.
Identification of policies and tools including digital ones, which can build on any positive changes in travel mode and/or emissions/exposures arising from lockdown and recovery policies, thus engraining positive changes in daily life, travel and work in the long term for improved indoor and outdoor air quality and better health and wellbeing;
Strategies or incentives should be introduced to test for, and mitigate the risk of, unintended consequences of COVID-19 policies on air quality emissions/exposures, particularly for socio-economically disadvantaged groups;
Interventions such as strategies, tools and policies are needed to increase public awareness and understanding of the value of good air quality, informed by improved access to current and future robust evidence on the links between air quality and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Research Priorities and Knowledge Gaps
Several key research priorities and knowledge gaps were identified, which can be grouped into three interconnected areas:
How environmental factors – e.g. outdoor/indoor pollutants, hygrothermal conditions, ventilation and airflow – affect the virus survival, transmission and exposure mechanisms, as well as associated health outcomes. For example:
To what extent air pollution outdoors and indoors affects viral transmission and/or associated health outcomes?
How do environmental factors such as airborne pollutants, temperature and/or humidity, increase/reduce virus viability and/or risk of transmission?
The extent, significance and overall net effect of changes in emission and exposure patterns, resulting from current lockdown policies, through to the recovery period and the emerging ‘new normal’ in the upcoming years. For example:
Was there a significant net reduction in UK outdoor pollution levels during the COVID-19 lockdown period, and if so could we build on any lessons learnt, in order to support policies to reduce pollution in the near future?
Was there an increase in exposure to indoor pollutants, especially within residential environments, during lockdown and/or shielding, due to prolonged time indoors and/or changes in activities at home? Could this have adverse health effects and to what extent can this ‘natural experiment’ be used to understand further the impactof indoor air quality and the overall impact of the pandemic on public health?
How will the recovery period, any further waves of infection and/or the emerging ‘new normal’, change how we use environments such as the workplace (including home working), schools, public spaces or transport? What will the impact of this be on outdoor and indoor emissions and exposures?
How do we design and test interventions so that they are simultaneously able to reduce the spread of the virus alongside maintaining comfortable and healthy working, learning and domestic environments, whilst also addressing – rather than contributing to – the challenges posed by fuel poverty and climate change mitigation/adaptation?
Longer term: impacts on air quality of societal, environmental and economic changes arising from COVID-19 and any other relevant policies. These include:
What are the synergies and tensions with climate action and sustainable development, particularly climate change adaptation and green recovery?
How can we better identify and protect vulnerable populations from the cumulative effects of poor air quality and other inequalities as well as infectious diseases?
Executive Summary authors
Dr Marcella Ucci, Associate Professor in Environmental and Healthy Buildings, UCL Institute for Environmental Design and Engineering
Dr Kevin Smith, RAL Space, Earth Observation & Atmospheric Science Division, Science and Technology Facilities Council
Briony Turner, Climate Services Development Manager, Space4Climate, NCEO
Fleur Hughes, Network Manager, STFC Air Quality Network