Less traffic in first lockdown reduced air pollution but caused surface ozone levels to rise, says new study


Less traffic on the roads during the first lockdown led to a reduction in air pollution but may have caused potentially damaging surface ozone levels to rise, a new study led by University of York has revealed.

According to the study, levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) were down on average across the UK by 42 per cent, but surface ozone (O3) increased by 11 per cent on average.

According to the researchers, surface, or ground-level ozone, can trigger a variety of health problems, particularly for children, the elderly, and people of all ages who have lung diseases such as asthma.

Scientists believe that warm and sunny spring weather may have been a contributing factor.

The report concludes that if the COVID-19 lockdown is taken as an example of how air quality will respond to future reductions in vehicle emissions – with more electric vehicles being introduced –  it serves as a warning that the problem of O3 must also be considered.

According to Professor James Lee from the Department of Chemistry and the National Centre for Atmospheric Science, the levels of O3 were the worst in the South of England during the first lockdown.

Professor Lee explained: “The problem is being created by the change in chemistry between NOx (nitrogen oxide) and O3.

“The main reason is the change in the nitrogen dioxide levels  but the warm sunny weather in April and May also increased the ozone level.

“As a result we found UV radiation across the UK was higher in 2020 compared to previous years, with the largest increases in southern England.

“London, Chilton in Oxfordshire and Camborne in Cambridgeshire saw increases of around 50% compared to previous years, with Glasgow and Inverness showing smaller increases of around 30%.

“These results are a cautionary tale. As well as looking at how we reduce levels of nitrogen dioxide by cutting diesel and petrol emissions, we also need to keep an eye on what is happening with ozone so we don’t create other forms of pollution dangerous to human health.”

The report says in China nitrogen oxide reductions have also led to increases in O3 and air quality abatement strategies are being developed in order to offset the problem.

This can be achieved by controlling volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are gases emitted into the air from products or processes of industry and other man-made activity.

Professor Lee added: “Our research shows it will be vital to control man-made VOCs to avoid any health gains made by the reduction of NO2 being offset by O3 increases.”

Data was collected from 175 Automatic Urban and Rural Network (AURN) traffic monitoring sites across the UK between 23rd March and 31st May 2020 and compared with figures from the previous five years.

The study, UK surface NO2 levels dropped by 42 % during the COVID-19 lockdown: impact on surface O3 has been published in the Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics-journal.

This story first appeared on the University of York website.