Put clean air policies at the heart of COVID-19 recovery plans

4 June, 2020

On World Environment Day (5 June), the European Respiratory Society (ERS) reiterates the importance of clean air for lung health and urges policymakers to ensure that clean air policies which protect both the environment and human health are at the heart of COVID-19 recovery plans.

COVID-19 lockdown measures that have been enforced across Europe have resulted in reduced levels of air pollution, due to the slowing of industrial manufacturing and significantly reduced road and air travel. As economic activity is now starting to resume across the region, the COVID-19 pandemic recovery presents an opportunity for Europe’s policymakers to redesign more sustainable economies that address climate challenges and protect the health of citizens, by keeping the air that we breathe clean and healthy.

Barbara Hoffman is Chair of the ERS Environment and Health Committee and Professor of Environmental Epidemiology at the University of Düsseldorf, Germany. She said: “We are exposed to a variety of polluting substances all the time because of industrial, heating, agricultural and traffic emissions. These substances, including particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide and ozone and other gases, remain in the atmosphere as dirty and polluted air. When we inhale these gases they cause damage to the upper airways, which are the lung’s first line of defence.

“Because of this, people who have higher exposure to air pollutants are more prone to developing chronic respiratory conditions, which makes them vulnerable to infectious respiratory diseases. Recent studies also suggest that higher short-term exposure to pollution may increase people’s risk of COVID-19 infection.”

Air pollution is known to trigger heart attacks in people with cardiovascular diseases and to exacerbate symptoms for people who already suffer with lung conditions, such as asthma and COPD. Pollution has also been shown to decrease life expectancy due to earlier death from cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and lung cancer, among many other serious health effects.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic highlights the urgent need to strive for a sustainable world through clean air policies. By doing this, we can increase resilience among Europe’s citizens and potentially prevent further outbreaks.

Professor Hoffman added: “Many European cities like Brussels, Milan and Vilnius are already setting an example, by turning streets into cycling and pedestrian lanes or by banning vehicles in the city centre. These positive actions will contribute to improving air quality in cities, but further concrete actions are needed to ensure that people across Europe are able to breathe clean air.”

To improve air quality and protect human health, the ERS Environment and Health Committee recommends that policymakers:

  • better enforce and implement EU limit values that reflect WHO guidelines;
  • guarantee that COVID-19 recovery plans include specific clean air policies;
  • continue to fund research to improve understanding of the impact of air pollution exposures on human health.

Resources for World Environment Day

Resources Details
ERS and ISEE factsheet • The Health Impact of Air Pollution – download in English or German
ERS mythbuster factsheet Air Pollution and Health: Myths and Facts
Learning materials for healthcare professionals Online e-learning resources
ERS publications articles
European Lung Foundation materials for patients and the public • Factsheet: Air pollution and health
• Risk factor web pages: Outdoor air pollution and Indoor air pollution

Visit the World Environment Day website

Learn more about the ERS Environment and Health Committee