Emerging Environmental Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic: Good and Bad

Paper:  Zambrano-Monserrate MA, Ruano MA, Sanchez-Alcalde L. Indirect effects of COVID-19 on the environment. Science of the Total Environment. 2020 Apr 20:138813. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.138813

Above: Disinfection of outdoor public areas in Taiwan. Source: Wikipedia.

Introduction: The global pandemic known variously as coronavirus, SARS-CoV2, and COVID-19 continues to infect and kill across the world. Many countries seem to have successfully flattened the curve through social distancing, mandatory mask ordinances, school closings, contact tracing, large-scale quick testing, and other measures.

However, there still are countries – in particular the United States – where more than a thousand COVID deaths and tens of thousands of COVID cases are a daily occurrence.

In this unprecedented reality, most research has focused on vaccines, treatments, and other measures to lessen the human toll of COVID-19. However, as with most anything that affects humankind, COVID-19 continues to have significant effects on the environment, as well.

A recent paper published in the journal Science of the Total Environment discusses some of these effects.

Paper Overview: Using satellite imagery, previous research, and numerous data sources, the scientists present some of known environmental effects of COVID-19, both good and bad.

One of the beneficial effects of COVID-19 on the environment has been decreased amounts of pollutants and particulates in the air.

An example of such a substance is nitrogen dioxide, a toxic gas that is a result of industrial activities, vehicle engines (like cars, planes, or ships), and other processes that burn fossil fuels.

The below image (Figure 1 from the paper) shows the drastic reduction in nitrogen dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere above China from December 2019 (image a) to February 2020 (image b).

Nitrogen dioxide concentration in the atmosphere above China in December 2019 (a) and February 2020 (b).
Source: Zambrano-Monserrate MA et al, 2020.

A similar scenario is evident in France and Spain, as well, with much lower concentrations of nitrogen dioxide concentrations in March 2020 (b images) compared to March 2019 (a images), as shown below.

Nitrogen dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere in March 2019 (a) compared to March 2020 (b), above France (upper row) and Spain (lower row).
Source: Zambrano-Monserrate MA et al, 2020.

The reductions in nitrogen dioxide and many other pollutants that arise from vehicle engines and industrial processes make sense in the current work-from-home and social distanced reality. People are commuting far less than before the pandemic, be it for work, errands, or recreation. Many factories and plants are also shut or operating at reduced capacity, due to decreased production demand and workforce shortages. As a result, engines and factory equipment are operating for far less time, burning far less fuel, and emitting far less polluting substances.

A related, but distinct benefit of this scenario is less noise – again, due to fewer vehicles operating and fewer industrial processes. This results in a more pleasant, less stressful, and less dangerous environment for humans and animals, alike.

Another beneficial effect of the pandemic for humans, animals, and even plants is less traffic at tourist and recreation sites, like beaches. It’s a sad fact that increased human presence generally leads to more trash and more disruptions to local wildlife and plants. The pandemic has forced many such sites to operate at reduced capacity or close altogether. Many people’s desire to avoid crowded areas has also reduced the number of visitors at many such sites. All these factors have resulted in much cleaner and more wildlife-friendly beaches and other sites.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to some negative consequences for the environment, as well.

Increased waste, both medical and non-medical, is certainly a pandemic reality. Treating COVID-19 patients requires medical staff to wear many pieces of personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks, gloves, and gowns. PPE is crucial in helping shield medical staff from virus particles that can be transmitted by contagious COVID-19 patients. PPE is designed to be disposable so as to not act as a fomite and transmit the virus to other patients. The sheer numbers of COVID-19 patients around the world means that medical staff are treating many more patients than they typically do, and are wearing and disposing of many more pieces of PPE than they typically would. This has led to an increase in medical waste.

Thanks to work-from-home, stay-at-home, lockdowns, and similar policies, many more people have started shopping online for many more things, including groceries and cooked food (in the form of food deliveries). While neither online shipping nor food delivery is a new phenomenon, both have soared in popularity and use during the COVID-19. Since online purchases and delivered food generally make use of more packaging than shopping and eating in-person, household (non-medical) waste has also increased.

Many areas have also seen non-essential services suspended, in an effort to reduce both the number of frontline workers and also expenses. Among these services is recycling, particularly in many American cities. This has led simultaneously decreased recycling, and increased garbage waste. Some merchants and retailers have also temporarily banned reusable shopping bags in a bid to decrease potential routes of infection into shopping areas and among staff. This had increased the use of plastic bags, many of which end up in landfills, where they are notoriously slow to decompose.

Finally, the pandemic has led to huge increases in the personal and large-scale use of disinfectants and sanitizers. They certainly are beneficial in helping prevent the spread of COVID-19. However, more research may be required in determining potential harm from sustained, frequent use of these substances.

Takeaways: The COVID-19 pandemic has created a new reality of social distancing, avoiding large crowds, frequent sanitizing, and many other practices. These practices have led to some significant benefits for the environment. However, the pandemic has also harmed the environment. Research on these potential harms is only now emerging. As the pandemic is still active, it will likely be some time before the full extent of COVID-19’s effects of the environment will be definitively known.

In the meantime, wear masks, wash your hands, and stay home as much as possible.

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Munim Deen

Munim is an epidemiologist and cartographer. His primary interests are infectious disease outbreaks and their intersection with the environment, public policy, and society at large. A geographic information system (GIS) devotee, he incorporates mapping and spatial analysis into his work whenever possible. A former newspaper columnist, he holds a bachelor's degree in microbiology and a master's degree in epidemiology.

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