Coronavirus update May 2020

For the first time since goodness knows when, the scientific community around the world has come together with a shared responsibility to tackle the spreading and highly contagious coronavirus pandemic named COVID-19 by the World Health Organisation. All except perhaps China and Russia.

Some basic things are still baffling the scientists, like why some areas have been hit harder than others if the virus is indiscriminate. In this case they’ve come up with a possible answer; pollution.

Environmental researcher Dario Caro from Aarhus University studied the link alongside two health researchers, Professor Bruno Frediani and Dr. Edoardo Conticini, from the University of Siena in Italy.

They investigated the high deaths in the north of Italy and the level of pollution in the same area and compared it with data from a NASA satellite, which demonstrated very high levels of air pollution across the region, they also compared findings to the Air Quality Index; a measurement of air quality developed by the European Environment Agency. The researchers demonstrated that the highest levels of pollution were across the region with the highest mortality rate. The mortality rate between north and south Italy is up to 12% in the north and 4.5% in the south.

Of course it doesn’t mean that pollution is the cause of coronavirus. No more than we can say pollution is the single or main cause for cancers. There are many reasons why these things occur. But It does prove that pollution is at least one of the factors, a contributor. Air pollution probably plays its role by lowering the body’s immune system which consequently increases susceptibility to infection especially by those with already weakened immune systems such as the very young, old and the respiratory impaired.

Air pollution has a longer lasting cumulative affect on the planet’s ecosystem. The ecosystem could also be described with another single word, ‘everything’. It comprises of all non-living things called the biotope and all living things called the biocoenosis. Both parts interact and make up the same environmental fabric. Pollution that affects non-living things also affects living things because the two parts of the ecosystem depend on each other.

But if air pollution is singularly attributable to burning fossil fuels then another question arises as to why after several months of lockdown measures to combat coronavirus, has carbon dioxide in the atmosphere kept rising. In fact CO2 emissions reached an all time high on 3 May 2020 hitting levels that haven’t been seen in more than sixty years.

On 4 May 2020 the UN Climate Change office (UNFCCC) reported the highest ever greenhouse gas concentration that has been observed in history at the Mauna Loa Observatory, a solar observatory located in Hawaii: at 418.12 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere. The first reading by Mauna Loa was taken in 1958 which was 318 parts per million and readings have peaked every year since.  If that’s in Hawaii imagine what the reading would be taken from almost every other point on the planet.

The drop by humans in greenhouse gas emissions due to the pandemic hasn’t had any effect, climate-wise. Scientists have been warning for ages that even if we had taken drastic measures to cut down years ago, it would have been to no avail because the planet’s climate direction has already been set in motion. You cannot just reduce emissions slightly for a small time and think that the problem is reversible that way.

And there beckons the next question for scientists; if we are heading towards the next ice age, which is the scenario, then why is the planet heating up as though it were just coming out of one. Timescales between ice ages are in the order of between 250,000 and 400,000 years so it’s not as though we would see any notable difference in the global temperature within our lifetime because temperature change happens ever so slightly across the centuries.

For example since the end of the Industrial Revolution, records from 1900 show that the temperature has increased by 1°C, with another significant rise from the 1970s when coal burning gave way to massive oil and gas pollutants. This is in contrast to the global temperature having risen by 5-7°C over the preceding 5,000 years.

So far 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2019 have been the hottest recorded global average temperatures ever recorded. The average global temperature has increased by 1.2°C since records began in 1880. Two-thirds of the warming has occurred since 1975, at a rate of roughly 0.15-0.20°C per decade.

As alarming as the the effects of greenhouse gas emissions may be, the reduction due to the pandemic has only been by 8% (according to the International Energy Agency,) which is nowhere near a level that might begin to halt the damage already caused to the ecosystem. The difference that global lockdown will make in slowing global warming is marginal if non-existent – and that is the startling revelation that even after this level of manufacturing has stopped, it is still not enough.

Even if emissions were cut entirely, Scripps Oceanography geochemist Ralph Keeling says: “Humanity’s waste pile is in the atmosphere and that doesn’t go away.” The fact is CO2 is building up in response to what we have been emitting over the past century not just that which we’ve been aware of in our lifetime. A fact ignored in the discourse about global warming is that CO2 can remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years. It’s not as simple as planting more trees.

The measurements at Mauna Loa are known as the Keeling Curve, after Charles Keeling who began taking them. It’s estimated that current global greenhouse gas emissions would have to drop by at least 50% to begin to address the issue of global warming seriously. Another model to be mindful of is that global emissions need to be cut entirely by 2050 according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to avoid worst-case scenarios. Most commentators though, believe we have already crossed the Rubicon and that the planet’s fate and ours is already sealed.

These days people that deny climate change is happening are viewed in the same league as holocaust deniers. You may not like it but the evidence is there, it’s rather like the existence of the flat earth society, you wonder if it’s a joke or are some people seriously in denial about what’s in front of them.

Global pollution is the significant factor in climate change, the evidence is there and it’s not a joke. It’s not all down to the parasitic race of humans that are undoubtedly contributing to the suffocation of this beautiful planet but geology plays its part too.

In our understanding of planetary history we know that throughout its life the Earth has been driven by cycles of severe temperatures and upheavals. We know that ice ages are a part of it and that the Earth shifting its tilt by even less than half a degree would have catastrophic results.

So it’s true that the planet is due and heading into the next ice age. Much of what we see could be the world rumbling before it commits to the big freeze. Not just this, but researchers have learned that these things don’t take thousands of years to happen as once thought, the world doesn’t get progressively colder until ice age temperatures are reached. Indeed the opposite is true, we now know. It can happen very abruptly, and within as little as 10 to 50 years.

Therefore a lot of the denial is based around the assumption that what we see around us is the natural course of things and there’s pretty nothing at all that can be done about it. Additionally these views come from certain types of person with very narrowed outlooks, people like Donald Trump for instance.

Nothing changes the fact that events are unfolding as they are. We are heading towards an ice age yet the air and seas are warming which would suggest a discrepancy somehow. The term global warming has been used to describe it but global warming is about what’s happening in the air, with the ozone, and the warming planet below is merely a symptom of this.

The fragility of the air is an important concern for most living creatures including ourselves. The planet can survive without the exact conditions that keep us alive. When a meteor hit the Earth 650 million years ago the air was filled with poisons that wiped out the dinosaurs, the Earth simply replenished over time but the dinosaurs have never returned.

So when we talk about catastrophic events happening in the world with more frequency, like floods and ice sheets melting, it’s not just all down to the natural cycle, we have to accept some responsibility that our existence is contributing towards the rate and the severity.

If by altering the fragile mix of air even slightly with human industrial pollution means we could become extinct then it should be a cause for concern. We are not talking about something that may confront humans in 1,000 years but in the lifetime of the next generation.

Air isn’t just one gas as you know but is made from a combination of which the one we breathe, oxygen, is one. As well as gases the air also contains particles known as aerosols. The heavy particles like dust and pollen are moved around by the wind at low level but other lighter aerosols like chimney smoke and vehicle exhaust fumes are carried much higher and this is what we call air pollution.

We can see that carbon dioxide is the most important contributor to human-caused air pollution, which comes from the burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil, and petrochemicals. Additionally every creature exhales carbon dioxide during respiration.

Now consider where the oxygen we need to breathe is located. The mix doesn’t go up to space as anyone that’s climbed a high mountain will attest. There is so much air pressing on the planet (air pressure) that heavier oxygen is at the bottom and therefore thins the higher you climb.

Another type of oxygen is ozone. Oxygen molecules are made up of two oxygen atoms whereas ozone molecules contain three oxygen atoms. The Oxygen symbol is O2 and Ozone is O3. Yet Ozone is lighter and is found much higher in the atmosphere forming a protective ring around the planet that soaks up radiation from the sun’s dangerous rays. However, you cannot breathe ozone like oxygen and it would damage your lungs.

Although ozone is harmful rather than breathable, and exposure to it increases the cancer risk, to demonstrate its oxynogenic life giving property ozone has been used in response to tumour hypoxia, an adverse effect of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Ozone therapy has been used successfully in the treatment of ischemic disorders, i.e. vascular diseases that involve an interruption in the supply of oxygen. Ozone therapy improves oxygenation in the most hypoxic tumours.

By volume air contains 78.09% nitrogen, 20.95% oxygen, 0.93% argon, 0.04% carbon dioxide, and small amounts of other gases. Air also contains water vapour, around 1% at sea level, and 0.4% over the entire atmosphere.

Breathing pure oxygen is not good and sometimes toxic. When the level is below 19.5% of what we breathe humans are considered oxygen-deficient and it could be a sign of a condition known as hypoxemia where not enough oxygen reaches the cells and tissues. At oxygen concentrations of 4 to 6%, there is loss of consciousness in 40 seconds and death within a few minutes.

The World Health Organisation claims that 4.2 million deaths every year are as a result of exposure to ambient air pollution. With 9 out of 10 people breathing air containing high levels of pollutants.

Air pollution is measured with the Air Quality Index. The lower the AQI the cleaner the air is. An AQI of 100 means you are pretty much breathing the equivalent of car exhaust fumes. Natural sources for such a high AQI number would be from a forest fire and cities with lots of traffic. 91% of people living in cities do not breathe safe air.

In the determining of the level of AQI, a region is measured for the concentration of five pollutants:

  • Nitrogen Dioxide
  • Sulphur Dioxide
  • Ozone
  • Particles < 2.5µm (PM2.5)
  • Particles < 10µm (PM10)

In an article in The Guardian on 14 December 2019 written by Jamie Doward, he discussed the UK’s failure to meet WHO standards for limiting the amount of ultra-fine particles in the air.

Other studies in 2019 linked the particles to cancers and poor physical development in children. The WHO standard is for 10 micrograms of ultra-fine particles per cubic metre, the EU standard is 12.5 micrograms and the US is 12 micrograms. The UK is currently at 25 micrograms. An article from The Daily Telegraph 8 June 2019 featured a woman that took readings at London schools that were way above all three micrograms standards listed above. 

As discussed earlier regarding the major contaminants of air pollution, traffic fumes are the main contributor. The evidence of the negative effects to heart, lungs and brain are overwhelming and abundant and it’s getting worse not improving. Indeed, a study in London showed ultra-fine particles are able to reactivate the herpes virus which lies dormant among carriers. Types of herpes can be the causes of some cancers, such as the Epstein-Barr virus that is the underlying cause for some lymphoma cancers.

Ambient (outside) air pollution now ranks among the top 10 major risk factors for attributable deaths worldwide and leads to an average loss of life expectancy of approximately one year in Europe. A WHO report in 2016 estimated more than half a million deaths from respiratory tract infections in children under five years of age directly attributable to air pollution.

An investigation by The Times newspaper in circa June 2019 revealed that 6,500 schools, educating 2.6 million children have dangerous levels of air pollution. A study from Barcelona showed that children living in areas of high pollution have slower cognitive development.

One study by King’s College London showed that primary school children in East London could develop lungs with 5% less capacity. While another in California showed children growing up in more polluted areas were more likely to have reduced lung size or function.

As always is the case, traffic is the major culprit with petrol engines spewing out tons of nitrogen dioxide and diesel engines five times as much again. In fact every school in London is over the pollution limit for PM2.5 (a measure of fine particulates) according to the WHO and EU scales.