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COVID-19 indoors and out

News  |  03 September, 2020  |  Reading time: 5 minutes
UK scientists are warning that unprecedented changes in living and working patterns during the pandemic are likely to have had a significant, but as yet unquantified, effect on air pollution and our exposure to it.

The quality of air indoors and outside plays an important role in conditions for virus viability and air pollution is a potentially significant environmental risk factor for groups vulnerable to COVID-19, including those with underlying respiratory or cardiovascular diseases.

The warning comes from the Air Quality Network UK (AQNUK), a new air quality research community co-founded by the Space4Climate group to support a Covid-19 and air quality research agenda. Drawing on the UK’s world-leading expertise in satellite data and space-enabled technology, AQNUK has been integral in bringing together indoor and outdoor air quality, meteorology, virology, health and built environment research professionals for the first time.

In collaboration with STFC Air Quality Network and the UK Indoor Environments Group, AQNUK ran the Coordinating research action: Air Quality & CV-19 event, hosted by SAQN. The event organisers have today [03/09/2020] produced a report calling for a rapid response to support recovery and a longer-term research agenda. More than 239 experts from across relevant disciplines, including air quality Earth observation specialists, contributed to determine the current state of knowledge on possible interactions between air quality and Covid-19 and ambient environmental conditions indoors and out.

Their calls to action include:

  • 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, especially in winter.
  • Better and more comprehensive data on air quality and exposure, especially for indoor environments.
  • Improvements in connections between existing air quality emission generating and exposure models and data to understand health and societal impacts before, during and after lockdown, including use of satellite data.
  • New policies and tools to transform short-term positive changes in longer-term collective lifestyle and workplace changes to benefit air quality, health and the environment,
  • 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’s 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.
  • 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.

Dr Marcella Ucci, chair of the event and Associate Professor in Environmental and Healthy Buildings at UCL commented: “Outdoor air pollution can impact on indoor air environments. During lockdown, many places are experiencing different patterns of pollutants and population exposures. This knowledge is crucial to inform more accurate assessment of, and measures to manage, the potential health impacts of air pollution in the coming months. Pollutant levels and weather conditions could impact upon virus viability, transmission and people’s immune system response.”

Members of Space4Climate – leading experts from the climate data from space community – contributed to this unique event and the report. The UK Earth observation community is already supporting discussions and research coordination, including analysis of data from the recently launched Sentinel-5P TROPOMI, the most powerful air quality sensor in orbit. National Centre for Earth Observation (NCEO) researchers have been using nitrogen dioxide data, a powerful tracer for air pollution, to monitor changes over many regions of the world since the Coronavirus outbreak as well as using satellite data and EO expertise in multi-country epidemic modelling and measurement of intervention effectiveness. It is also possible to use satellite data to monitor other harmful pollutants such as carbon monoxide, ammonia, ozone and aerosols.

The event, which took place on 20th May, included talks from the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Clean Air Champions, an overview of the current UK context from Professor Catherine Noakes, Public Health England and the Covid-19 group of the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants. Defra’s Air Quality Expert Group shared initial findings from their call for evidence.

An executive summary of the event report, Estimation of changes in air pollution emissions, concentrations and exposure during the COVID-19 outbreak in the UK was published in July [2020]. Dr Matthew Hort, Head of Atmospheric Dispersion and Air Quality at the Met Office provided an overview of scenarios and links between the weather, air quality and pollen patterns and forecasts with Covid19 viability, exposure and impacts, including on air quality and weather and climate patterns.

Briony Turner, Climate Services Development Manager and coordinator of the Space4Climate group says:

“Space4Climate group members have an important role to play in helping us all better understand links between air quality parameters, environmental conditions such as wind and temperature and Covid-19. Space-enabled air quality and climate datasets and services can help detect changes, quantify impacts and save lives.”

Fleur Hughes, SAQN Network Manager says, “This event provided a valuable opportunity for researchers from all disciplines to come together to identify questions about Covid-19 and air quality. By working together, we can share knowledge and find ways to make best use of our resources to address these questions.”

UKRI Clean Air Champions

The UKRI Clean Air Champions believe Covid-19 is a “grave burden to society across the globe, but from the experience of various degrees of lock-down, a picture is beginning to emerge of what cleaner air is like and how society can use this as an opportunity of moving towards zero carbon without returning to the old ways.”

The UKRI Clean Air Champions are:

  • Dr Jenny Baverstock, UKRI Clean Air Champion and Senior Collaboration Fellow at the University of Southampton
  • 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

Download the full report

More information

Air Quality Network UK (AQNUK) is an activity of the Space4Climate group.

STFC Air Quality Network (SAQN) brings together researchers, industry and policy to address air quality challenges. SAQN is funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) as part of their 21st Century Challenge Networks programme.

The UK Indoor Environments Group (UKIEG) co-ordinates and provides a focus for UK activity concerned with improving indoor environments for people. The UKIEG Committee coordinates members and activities to help promote the development, synthesis, dissemination and application of evidence relating to policy and practice for health and wellbeing associated to UK’s indoor environments.

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