Take on Nature: Air we breathe may tie in with pandemic in more ways than we think

The sounds of airplanes overhead are rare now; those that do appear are solitary.

THE sound of birds in the early mornings while I am sitting outside sipping my coffee has gained a new intensity.

Despite living in the outskirts of a fairly large town, there is no background noise – no cars, lorries nor sounds of people moving about.

It’s not that there are more birds about than usual, it is just that their songs are more discernible with the absence of human noise.

Despite being restricted to the same walk most days, along a narrow country road, I haven’t got bored with it, discerning subtle changes as the season progresses. The dandelions and snowdrops of a few weeks ago have given way to bluebells and cow parsley.

Last week a fox ran out in front of me, wriggling its way through a hedgerow and on to the potholed road and sauntering for a few paces before turning its head to look over its shoulder and spotting me and darting back into the shrubbery.

A day later a hare broke from its cover, its powerful hind legs sending it racing across a newly ploughed field.

And then there is the yellowhammer, a bird that I have never seen too often but now seem to run into every day at the same spot.

Bees suckle on the hedgerow plants and sometimes it sounds as if a million insects are buzzing and humming in among the hawthorns and whins.

The leaves in the trees have all shaken loose, the ash last as always, their branches still naked as the new sprung foliage hangs limp but it is quickly taking shape.

The sounds of airplanes overhead are rare now; those that do appear are solitary, their engine noises startling me back into remembrance of how frequent they used to be.

At night the stars and this week’s full moon seem to have taken on a new intensity, perhaps because there is now less air pollution.

Nitrogen oxides, which are produced by fossil fuels, have fallen as the number of vehicles on our roads have dramatically reduced.

According to the Helsinki-based Centre for Research on Energya and Clean Air, there have were 11,000 fewer deaths in Europe during the past month because of improved air quality.

It says lockdowns in Ireland, Britain and mainland Europe have brought about an approximate 40 per cent reduction in average levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution, and a 10 per cent reduction in average levels of particulate-matter pollution over the past 30 days.

According to the European Environmental Agency, the average life expectancy in the EU is shortened by an estimated eight months because of exposure to air pollution.

The agency reported that in 2016, around 400,000 deaths in the European region were attributed to dirty air pollution while 71,000 deaths were as a result of nitrogen dioxide air pollution.

The 11,000 fewer deaths as a result of lower air pollution levels is of course offset by the tens of thousands more fatalities caused by the ongoing pandemic. However, research is already emerging to suggest that air pollution could be a factor in the high mortality rate among those who catch the virus.

A scientific team at Aarhus University in Demark examined the correlation between air pollution and coronavirus infections and deaths in northern Italy. They concluded that people who live in regions with higher air pollution had a higher level of inflammatory cytokine proteins which left them more vulnerable to the virus.

And it is not just the impact of air pollution leading to weakness in people’s lungs that has made the virus so lethal. According to a Chinese analysis of 120 cities, air pollution could also be a factor in helping to spread the disease.

Evidence is still being gathered, research is still being carried out – but do we really need science to tell us clean air = good; air pollution = bad?