How A Global Pandemic Illuminated Air Pollution’s Health Impacts

July 20, 2020

There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic and its ensuing global lockdowns have been largely destructive: from deaths and health concerns to economic struggles and political turmoil to the many daily disruptions of everyday life. Despite this, there have been some positive, albeit small, results during this time. In particular, the limited amount of human activities and business operations have, in turn, limited these tasks’ negative consequences on the environment. Pollution from traffic and industry has substantially decreased. Now, some scientists and observers are noticing measurable improvements to air quality around the world.

While it certainly does not diminish nor offset the tragedies and many short- and long-term problems created by the pandemic, these unprecedented times have provided a unique and unexpected opportunity to measure civilization’s effects on air quality. As The New York Times observes, air pollution contributes directly to poor health. New research suggests 14% of all cardiovascular events and 8% of cardiovascular-related deaths are due to air pollution. A recent study, published in Lancet Planetary Health, followed 153,436 adults across 21 countries between 2003 and 2018. Researchers also tracked the levels of PM 2.5, particles of soot that are small enough to enter the lungs and become absorbed by the bloodstream, where these individuals were located. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers 12 micrograms per cubic meter of PM 2.5 to be safe; however, the locations in the study averaged 47.5.

When researchers followed up with those in the study (typically after an average of nine years), they discovered that fatal and nonfatal cardiovascular events were associated with increased levels of air pollution—even after rigorously controlling for other factors such as age, health, and behavioral characteristics. Specifically, for every 10 micrograms per cubic meter of PM 2.5 in the air, they found an associated 5% increased risk for any cardiovascular event, 3% increased risk for a heart attack, 7% increased risk for stroke, and 3% increased risk for a cardiovascular-related death.

The health implications of this data are even more significant today, as many scientists as well as federal organizations like the EPA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) observe how air pollution levels are changing alongside lockdowns. While some point out that the data is still limited to draw any major conclusions, it is true that emissions from vehicles and factories have dropped. Many speculate the cleaner air might actually be saving some lives and preventing cardiovascular-related problems for many people.

 

Wellness Issues Outside Of An Employer’s Control

One day, the data and observations made during COVID-19 may lead to more stringent environmental guidelines when it comes to climate change and pollution. That remains to be seen. For now, employers and individuals must acknowledge that some things—like air quality—are out of their control when it comes to addressing health and wellness concerns. Access to healthy food, healthy environments, and healthy activities cannot always fall under a wellness program’s control. This may seem frustrating. However, it does place a greater emphasis on the aspects of wellness that an employer can influence.

  

Making Sustainable, Environmentally-Friendly Changes at Work

It’s important to not get discouraged; even though employers do not have the ability to shut down traffic in their state so everyone can breathe cleaner air, there is still progress to be made. Companies have the ability to make changes in the way business operations and office activities are conducted, so that the environmental impact is minimal. They may enact recycling programs, develop sustainable shipping and packaging practices, upgrade an office environment’s energy efficiency, and reduce transportation needs. Employers can also advocate for the environment in their community through fundraising or awareness efforts. While the changes may feel less immediately-consequential to employee’s health and productivity, as well as require dedication and long-term implementation, these are steps that ultimately improve people’s well-being.

Topics: Facts and Research


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