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COVID-19: Air pollution during lockdown

There have been media reports that air pollution is lower due to the COVID-19 lockdown. But is there more to this story? Gary Fuller explains:

Operating the London Air Quality Network in the time of a global pandemic is a complicated beast. In normal times, London’s air pollution measurement is run from an operations room at the Waterloo Campus. Now it is being run from kitchen tables and bedrooms across south east England.

Remote operation was designed into our software but there’s the business of logistics: How to ensure the instruments are running when non-essential travel is banned? Do we have staff who are fit and able to safely travel to maintain the scientific instruments that are dotted around the capital? And finally, is it essential to measure air quality when there is a global pandemic?

Is air pollution better than normal?

There are lots of reports that the lockdown means London’s air is cleaner. This is hard to test. Schemes such as the Ultra-Low Emission Zone means the air pollution in London was getting better before the lock down, so we can’t simply compare air pollution with previous years to what we have now.

It’s not just a question of how much the air has improved but how bad it might have been without the lock down in place.

It might be a surprise to many that springtime is the most polluted time in the UK. When winds turn to the east, pollution particles can sweep across western Europe. At this time of year, these particles consist of a mixture of pollution from industry and traffic along with emissions from agriculture as crops are being planted and fertilised and manure is spread on fields. However, it looks like the lockdown might have averted a serious air spring smog last week.



Managing the network:

The London Air website is a live show. Instruments across London collect millions of measurements every week and our job is to ensure their accuracy and map them every hour. Operationally, it’s a challenge as there are instruments on London’s street corners, by schools and parks.

The data collected by the instruments is automatically updated on the website every hour, but the management of the system is happening remotely.

Our field work is our next challenge. It is essential to check on the instruments as much as weekly to monthly. They are precise pieces of scientific kit that degrade as they sample our polluted air so we need to make sure they are in proper working order. While lockdown persists, we are doing our best to change the way we run our instrumentation so they can run without maintenance for as long as possible.

How does air pollution impact our health?

Air pollution is a known cause of ill health. Under normal times, breathing polluted day in day out can shorten your life.  It can restrict the development of children’s lungs, trigger cardiac arrests and asthma attacks, and may even be a cause of dementia.


We are all staying in to “flatten the curve”; cutting the peak COVID-19 demand on health services. A recent article in the British Medical Journal also urges us to “lower the baseline”; reducing other demands on health systems to allow resources to be focused on the epidemic. Air pollution might have an important role to play in this.

There is still much work to be done to explore whether dirty air has an impact. In the meantime, air pollution data has been deemed an essential evidence resource in the management of the COVID situation and the data that we are collecting now will be input into a whole range of studies over the coming months.


In this story

Gary  Fuller

Gary Fuller

Senior Lecturer in Air Pollution Measurement

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