Imperial College London

Air pollution during lockdown and beyond

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Aerial view of South Kensington Campus

Aerial view of South Kensington Campus

Air pollution monitors have been installed near South Kensington campus to measure pollution during and after the COVID-19 Lockdown.

Research led by Imperial College London, with partners at the University of Surrey and the University of Edinburgh, aims to understand the impact of pollution in cities, as part of a study called INHALE.  

To assess levels of pollution, a network of four monitors in west London will collect information on the size distribution of particulate matter – microscopic particles suspended in the air, that form air pollution.  

The Airspeck air pollution monitors, developed at the University of Edinburgh, have sensors that count particulate matter in the air. The data collected shows the amount of different sized particles that are present at a given time, and is uploaded in real-time to the Cloud for storage and processing.  

The Airspeck monitors have been attached to lamp posts near South Kensington campus and will tell us how much particulate matter is in the air, how this changes over time, and give us a sense of the general levels of local pollution. 

Professor D K Arvind, University of Edinburgh, who is leading this aspect of the study, says, “We are conducting a natural experiment, in collaboration with Professor Alexandra Porter of Imperial, to investigate how the nature of air pollution - that is, the concentration of particles in the air and their composition - changes progressively as London ramps up economic activity after release from the COVID-19 lockdown. This information will help us model more accurately the impact of mitigation measures, such as traffic calming, on air quality in London.” 

Alongside these particle counting monitors, INHALE researchers from the University of Surrey, led by Professor Prashant Kumar, have been collecting samples of air pollution in different microenvironments, such as by the roadside, in parks and near greenery. The chemistry of the collected particulate matter will be analysed to inform us of the composition of air pollution in and around West London. Also, the biological effects of the pollutants will be examined on cells taken from the nose of those living and working in these areas. 

Modelling pollution dispersion

The particulate data collected by the monitors will feed into the modelling of pollution dispersion, using computational models. The researchers expect to see a difference in the levels of pollutants during lockdown, and as restrictions ease. 

Study lead Professor Christopher Pain says, “Collecting particles during and after lock-down is key to understanding urban air pollution and possible links to the transmission of COVID-19 infections. We are delighted to be part of this and are developing models to support the data collection work which may lead to monitoring of the infections within the population and fundamental understanding of the airborne virus transmission.” 

The above gif, by Dr Laetitia Mottet (http://www.magic-air.uk/), models how air pollution flows around buildings.

Pollution and personal health

The INHALE study aims to assess the impact of pollution on personal health. The research integrates modelling of air pollution and air-flow. By modelling how pollution moves around our cities, and how ‘green infrastructure’ – such as roadside hedges – mitigates pollution, we can improve our understanding of how people are exposed to different air pollutants in urban environments.  

The researchers hope that future studies could apply their team to the COVID-19 pandemic. This could include investigations of how, or if, the virus can exist in the air, relating pollution levels to patient outcomes, and modelling the dispersion of the virus and the effectiveness of face masks. 

Fan Chung, Professor of Respiratory Medicine and Head of Experimental Studies Medicine at National Heart & Lung Institute, Imperial College London, says, “The INHALE team is well-geared to undertaking these important studies. If indeed SARS-CoV can circulate in the air together with pollutants, sampling for the virus together with particulate matter might become a mode of surveillance for the virus. It would also mean that reducing pollution levels would be of the utmost priority.’

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Victoria Murphy

Victoria Murphy
Department of Earth Science & Engineering

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Tel: +44 (0)20 7594 6445
Email: v.murphy@imperial.ac.uk

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Pollution, Coronavirus
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