IMF: Covid restrictions impact traffic volumes, improve air quality

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Air pollution is decreasing due to Covid restrictions.

Image: Silja Viitala / Yle

Between street dust and pollen, spring in Finland can often mean a rapid deterioration in air quality.

The country is at the height of the spread of seasonal street dust, but current coronavirus restrictions could provide some relief from this annual predicament, according to Pia anttila, researcher at the Finnish Meteorological Institute (IMF).

“In our experience, after a year of the pandemic, as traffic volumes have decreased, emissions have decreased, and air quality has improved. If the Covid-19 situation worsens, an improvement in air quality can be expected. again, ”Anttila says.

Air pollution dropped dramatically in spring 2020

Traffic has a significant impact on the quality of urban air. Cars spread street dust over the road surface and release nitrogen dioxide into the air. A year ago, the coronavirus pandemic brought urgent restrictions and many people started working from home in an attempt to reduce social contact.

This rapid change in behavior patterns has been seen in pollution statistics, as car-related nitrogen dioxide emissions have dropped drastically.

The amount of nitrogen dioxide in the air indicates the amount of driving. Therefore, the emissions can also be taken as an indication of the effectiveness of the restrictions. Authorities recently used nitrogen dioxide values ​​as a measure of human mobility, in the same way cell phone location data has been used before.

The biggest change in pollution, compared to last year, occurred in the Helsinki metropolitan area, where the Uusimaa border closure sealed off the area from the rest of the country for three weeks. Air pollution could decrease again this spring if new measures against coronaviruses limit movement after the Easter holidays.

According to Anttila, nitric oxide levels started to rise again in the summer, but have now stabilized at about 20% lower than normal.

Long-term environmental benefits?

Could the pandemic have long-term benefits for air quality? Maybe, if working from home becomes the new normal, says Anttila. Nitric oxide levels will return to normal, however, as soon as we resume regular traffic patterns.

In China, air pollution topped pre-coronavirus levels this summer as the industry rebounded. Researchers believe the same can happen in Europe.

In Finland, the amount of nitrogen dioxide in urban air has been declining for years, in part due to more fuel-efficient cars.

At the same time, awareness of the health effects of air pollution has increased.

Will face masks remain a staple after the pandemic?

Widespread use of masks, such as the FFP2 mask, which protects against particles like street dust, could also provide relief for people with pollen allergies, Anttila adds.

During the pandemic, the use of masks has become more prevalent, and they may continue to benefit high-risk groups by providing much-needed relief during street dust season.

Anttila says that although air quality deteriorates steadily in the spring, Finland remains one of the top contenders for the cleanest air in Europe.

The IMF monitors air pollution in real time on its website, in order to inform citizens about air pollution exceeding threshold values.

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