Environmental standards help fight pandemics

| 14th April 2020

Shealah Craighead

White House
The EPA rolled back environmental regulations for polluters - but this will have massive health implications on vulnerable people and those recovering from COVID-19.

With a pass to use at their discretion, manufacturers will now go indefinitely unregulated in terms of air and water pollution and waste disposal. Environmental standards need to increase, not decrease, during a global crisis like a pandemic. 

COVID-19 has disrupted the state of the world. From country to country, the pandemic is affecting millions of lives. Part of this disruption comes from the virus's ability to spread before people show symptoms.

Now, with various environmental standards at stake, organizations and individuals are emphasizing the ways the environment can help fight pandemics.

The novel coronavirus has shown its relationship with the environment in several different ways. First, the social distancing, isolations and quarantines that result in a slow down in economic activity are leading to reduced pollution across the globe.

Pollution

Second, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has rolled back certain regulations that would otherwise reduce pollution. Last, experts believe that human interference in the environment plays a large role in the spread of pandemics. 

These three dynamics show that improving environmental standards is one large-scale method of helping to fight pandemics — both COVID-19 and future outbreaks.

As the coronavirus spreads across the world, it leaves behind an unintended outcome: a decrease in pollution. Shortly after the outbreak began, environmentalists started to notice that pollution levels were dropping visibly — both from satellite views and in person. 

Social distancing, lockdowns and quarantines have become a standard part of dealing with the pandemic. Because these mandates should only allow essential personnel to commute to work, pollution levels drop significantly.

China, for instance, began lockdowns at the beginning of the year. Compared to the same timeframe from 2019, the country saw a 25 percent decrease in carbon pollution this year. 

Regulation 

Similar trends are sweeping across the United States, from New York to Los Angeles. Pollution levels are decreasing wherever social distancing and quarantines are happening. In Italy, the waterways have begun to clear up — a feat that hasn't occurred in years due to the heavy boat traffic in normal life. 

These trends suggest two things for the future. First, pollution is harming people, especially during the COVID-19 outbreak. Since coronavirus is a respiratory infection, it affects the lungs.

Pollution significantly worsens breathing conditions, asthma and cardiovascular issues — three areas that put people most at-risk of the coronavirus. For future pandemics, pollution will need to decrease.

Second, sustainable energy sources will have the same effects on pollution reduction as quarantines do. The effects of pollution can be deadly. To combat future pandemics, societies across the world will need to integrate sustainability.

One of the most controversial environmental decisions from the Trump administration came from the EPA at the end of March. This decision involves rolling back requirements that keep the biggest polluters under regulation.

Risks

The EPA released a statement that said they are going to waive normal requirements for routine monitoring and reporting. Further, the organization stated that it will not seek penalties for noncompliance.

Instead, if the EPA agrees that COVID-19 is the source of the noncompliance, it will wave penalties. This applies to factories, power plants and any other sources of manufacturing. 

The EPA stated that this decision is important in order to keep the production of necessary supplies and materials continuing without interruption.

However, activists and government officials have been quick to point out how this will increase pollution levels. During the time of this pandemic, increased pollution could be deadly. 

The coronavirus is affecting people in lower-income households the most. Those who live in polluted areas will face even more risks due to the respiratory risks of COVID-19.

Communities

Though certain sectors of the government are planning for continued operations, there has been no sign of opposition to the decision within the Trump administration that would help the poorest in the country. 

With a pass to use at their discretion, manufacturers will now go indefinitely unregulated in terms of air and water pollution and waste disposal. Environmental standards need to increase, not decrease, during a global crisis like a pandemic.

The origin of COVID-19 is still murky. The virus's first cases were in Wuhan, China, but uncertainty remains around how patient zero contracted it.

There has been speculation that bats are the source of the virus, but experts are debating that idea. However, experts can agree on one underlying factor: human interference. 

Environmental practices and social actions like deforestation or income inequality can lead to issues like the spread of diseases. For instance, if a forest is destroyed, bats may flock inwards towards cities and communities. 

Pandemics

The microbes they carry that were once a safe distance from human populations could then spark a pandemic. 

Similarly, income inequality leads to a lack of proper resources, including housing crises. Once poverty occurs, a pandemic could spread rapidly, leaving the homeless without sufficient care and treatment. Here, human intervention is necessary in order to eliminate income inequality. 

Scientists have access to information that can inform governments about microbes and animal-born diseases. With improved environmental regulations and standards, communities wouldn't have to be at risk if an invasive species starts an outbreak. 

When the environment becomes a factor in government decisions, fewer issues will occur and more solutions will arise. Sustainability is one of those solutions that can reduce pollution.

It will mimic the effects quarantines have on carbon emissions as well as eliminate the risks of harming others during future pandemics. 

This Author

Emily Folk is a conservation and sustainability writer and the editor of Conservation Folks.

Image: President Donald Trump is joined by vice president Mike Pence and secretary of the treasury Steven Mnuchin as he displays his signature on the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, Wednesday, March 18, 2020, in the Oval Office of the White House. Shealah Craighead / White House / Public Domain. 

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