While physical distancing and handwashing (have you washed your hands recently??) are essential strategies to #FlattenTheCurve on the coronavirus pandemic, governments can also reduce the load on the health care system by keeping the air as clean as possible, three public health and respiratory medicine specialists from British Columbia argue in a post for the Globe and Mail.
All on its own, air pollution causes 400,000 pneumonia-related deaths around the world each per year, including 1,600 in B.C., at a cost of $11.5 billion to the health system, write Michael Brauer of the University of British Columbia School of Population and Public Health, Christopher Carlsten of the UBC Division of Respiratory Medicine, and Sarah Henderson of the B.C. Centre for Disease Control. And in 2003, exposure to elevated levels of air pollution doubled the risk of death from the SARS coronavirus.
But even though physical distancing has reduced roadway traffic and economic activity, “that doesn’t mean all drivers of pollution have been eliminated,” they note. “In British Columbia, other major sources include open burning of agricultural and forestry waste, as well as residential wood heating and road dust. The wildfire season is also quickly approaching, bringing with it the potential for severe smoke.”
Already, Vancouver Island and Metro Vancouver face air quality advisories due to particulate pollution. And in the B.C. Interior, “spring has already brought about multiple air quality advisories, prompted by the dust that’s unleashed when the snow melts and winter traction materials dry up.”
Which means air quality improvements are one way to reduce the number of mild COVID-19 cases that become severe and require hospitalization—particularly for the 800,000 British Columbians living with chronic lung disease.
“Fortunately, actions can be taken quickly and at relatively little cost or inconvenience,” the three specialists write. Control measures include banning use of home fireplaces that aren’t a primary heating source, cleaning up road dust, banning open burning of debris near population centres, and beginning preparations for this year’s wildfire season.
“This means those with pre-existing heart and lung disease should ensure that they have adequate supplies of medication and should consider purchasing air purifiers and filters,” they write. “It would also be reasonable for governments to consider proactive fire bans to further reduce the likelihood of wildfires this year.”