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Permanently reducing pollution to 2020 levels would prevent 600 deaths in Barcelona every year

Air quality. Particle levels fell too, but only moderately and not to the levels set by the WHO.

According to the Barcelona Public Health Agency's (ASPB) latest annual air quality report, the fall in pollution recorded in 2020, the year in which the pandemic started, would also cause the number of new cases of childhood asthma to fall by 19%, and new cases of lung cancer by 5%.

According to the Barcelona Public Health Agency’s (ASPB) latest annual report, the travel changes and restrictions caused by the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic led to an unprecedented improvement to the city of Barcelona’s air quality.

According to the estimates in the ASPB’s health impact assessment, permanently reducing the usual amount of pollution – based on 2018 and 2019 levels – to 2020 levels could prevent 4% of natural deaths in the city (around 600 deaths per year), 19% of new cases of childhood asthma (around 300 per year) and 5% of new cases of lung cancer (around 50 cases per year).

The fall in pollution has meant that, for the first time since records began, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) guideline levels and the European Union’s (EU) annual limit on nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which is an annual average of 40 µg/m3per year, were met at all of the city’s surveillance stations.

Despite this improvement, the WHO’s guideline levels for both PM10 and PM2.5 particles were still exceeded in 2020 (PM10: 20 µg/m/ PM2.5: 10 µg/m3), although the legal level stipulated by the EU was met.

The report reveals that the fall in pollution during 2020 in turn led to a drastic reduction in people’s exposure to pollution as compared to usual levels (2018-2019).

In fact, the average concentration of NO2 to which the population is exposed dropped by 28% (11 µg/m3). This was particularly noticeable in the Eixample district, the part of ​​the city ​​with the strongest reduction.

Reduction in the number of schools exposed

NO2 exposure of schools fell at a similar rate to the general population, with also similar differences between the most and least polluted schools.

It is important to note this difference between schools and their consequences on children’s health, as epidemiological studies have shown that every extra 10 µg/m3 of NO2 exposure results in a 5% increase in the risk of developing childhood asthma.

In spite of remaining the district with the most schools exposed to high levels of NO2, the Eixample was also the district that saw the sharpest decline in 2020.

Conclusions of the ASPB’s report

Among other findings, the ASPB’s report states that the current challenge is to improve air quality by means of decisive social changes and public policies that ensure a significant reduction in air pollutant emissions and their health impact.

In relation to this, the ASPB also notes that a return to pre-pandemic motorised vehicle use levels should be avoided, keeping daily travel local (between people’s homes and their places of work, education or shopping) and taking other steps that have helped reduce motorised traffic, such as teleworking.

The report also mentions the positive impact on people’s health of structural measures such as the reduced use of private motor vehicles, more environmentally friendly vehicles and the promotion of active transport.These measures should be applied more strongly in the Eixample district and the most polluted schools in any case.

Furthermore, the ASPB notes that, in order to improve air quality in the city, it is essential to adopt new measures to significantly reduce the number of vehicles being driven, which will lead to added health benefits such as less environmental noise, fewer traffic-related injuries and more urban spaces available for healthier uses.

You can view the full report here.