Coronavirus has unexpected impact on air quality

Posted at 2:24 PM, Apr 07, 2020

Traffic in California is no joke. Los Angeles traffic is famous, but up north in the San Francisco Bay Area, it’s nothing to sneeze at.

And since the Bay Area counties ordered the first shelter-in-place orders around the country in response to COVID-19, things have been noticeably different.

“It’s about a 40 percent decrease in NOx, which contributes to smog, a 20 percent decrease in fine particulate matter and about a 25 percent decrease in CO2,” said John Gioia, a member of the California Air Resources Board.

Gioia says that fresh air you’re noticing is real.

“The air quality improvements are definitely great, although the rain has helped things out as well," Gioia said. "We’ve had the double benefit here of less people driving and weather patterns that clean the air.”

It’s not just happening in California, it’s happening all over the world.

“The cities that I’ve looked at, especially in Europe, there’s been an about 20 up to 50 reduction in nitrogen dioxide,” said Lauri Myllyvirta.

Myllyvirta works for the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air. The organization has been tracking coronavirus-related shutdowns and their impact on air quality since the disease caused China to shut down.

“It was immediately clear this would have a dramatic impact," she said. {"What happened in China was that the lockdowns came into effect, just when the country was starting it’s largest national holiday of the year.”

The good news is that one of the most deadly air pollutants, particle pollution, is way down.

“PM 2.5 is the most dangerous type of air pollution, globally," Myllyvirta explained. "It’s particles that are so small, that not only do they make it deep into your lungs, but when they go into your lungs they can penetrate into your bloodstream."

What makes this less good news is that it's probably only temporary.

“It comes right back. It comes right back,” said Monica Mazurek, an environmental engineering professor at Rutgers University.

She says while things will return to normal once the economy starts back up, this is an incredible opportunity.

“This opportunity with COVID-19 has given us a chance to reset the emissions button," she said. "We really need to think about our transportation infrastructure, our fuel infrastructure."

Gioia agrees with her.

“As we move forward implementing our new statewide requirements to electrify transportation, the benefit is we will all have much better air quality, and we won’t need to go through a pandemic like this to get there,” said Gioia.

If there are serious policy changes made, this breath of fresh air might be here to stay.