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Cleaning Europe's air

Image credit - Wikimedia/Public Domain
Image credit - Wikimedia/Public Domain

As commutes dropped during coronavirus lockdowns, many of Europe’s city-dwellers breathed cleaner air. In July, Horizon takes a look closer look at our air pollution problem, what it is, how it affects human health and whether now is the time to make the move to greener transport. We spoke to social epidemiologist Dr Basile Chaix about what it will take to capitalise on the post-coronavirus calls for greener cities to really change our urban spaces – and transport habits. We dissect the properties of particulate matter to understand how characteristics such as particle size or number relate to toxicity, and what they do to human cells. With wildfires known to strike particularly in the summer, we look at how scientists are tracking this lesser-known source of air pollution to better understand the impact on human health. And we find out how a soybean-related asthma outbreak in 1980s Spain is influencing air pollution research today.

Size matters in air pollution – but it’s not enough

Current regulations on air pollution mainly focus on the mass of particles of a particular size range in a sample, and this has been used as a marker for their threat to human health. But these air quality standards do not address the medical implications of the very smallest particles – nor other attributes that may be damaging, such as their chemical makeup.

Q&A: China and Europe likely to see different effect of coronavirus-related air pollution drop

In March, a study revealed that between 50,000 and 100,000 deaths could be avoided this year in China if air pollution stayed at the same level as during the coronavirus lockdown. While other parts of the world have also seen improvements in air quality, the impact in Europe is likely to be less dramatic than for China, according to Dr Kristin Aunan from the Centre for International Climate Research (CICERO) in Norway, who conducted the study.

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