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In just a few months the coronavirus pandemic has struck virtually every country, sickening millions and causing nearly 300,000 fatalities. To combat the virus, governments have had to employ lockdowns, quarantines, and social distancing regulations — shutting down industries, closing businesses, and restricting movement — leaving hundreds of millions of people without work or income. The socioeconomic cost is, and will continue to be, enormous. Yet, there is one good result from this global tragedy — air pollution has substantially decreased.
Researchers estimate that air pollution caused an extra 8.8 million premature deaths in 2015 — shortening global life spans on average by three years – and making deaths from war/violence and diseases trivial by comparison. All the war and violence in the world in 2015 lowered life expectancy by only 0.3 years, one-tenth of the human-life cost of air pollution. Air pollution caused more deaths than malaria by a factor of 19, HIV/AIDS by a factor of 9, alcohol by a factor of 45, and drug abuse by a factor of 60.
It is estimated that about two-thirds of global air pollution is caused by human activity. The result of curtailing economic activity and travel has been remarkably cleaner and clearer air over industrial and densely populated areas, revealing vistas rarely seen, if ever, by the populace. Anecdotally, we hear improvements to human health are noticeable. Possibly, this temporary reduction in air pollution is extending life expectancies as much as the pandemic is reducing it. Research has shown that after significant decreases in US particulate decreases from 2009 through 2016 from Obama, Trump’s actions to lower air standards have caused particulate levels to spike, resulting in an additional 9,700 premature deaths of Americans in 2018.
Hopefully, after this pandemic subsides all people and governments will recognize the enormous social and economic benefits of clean air before going back to business as usual.