Clearing up the air: Is better air quality a result of the pandemic?

Moody clouds over the Pine Valley Mountains, Leeds, Utah, March 21, 2020 | Photo by Aspen Stoddard, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — As clouds of pollution have seemingly disappeared across the globe, many news headlines emerged about how the earth appeared to be replenishing itself as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic – but is this true?

According to NASA, during state-mandated quarantines in January and February, pollution monitoring satellites over China detected significant decreases in nitrogen dioxide – evidence that suggested the change was partially due to the economic slowdown.

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However, these impacts are likely not garnering any permanent effects considering past observations of drops, such as during the Olympics in Beijing. After the Olympics were over, the pollution levels rose again. A similar decrease was seen during the 2008 recession.

In looking at how the state’s recommendations on social distancing and staying home could be effecting Utah air quality in the short-term, it’s not as easy as just looking at this March compared to the past five, spokesman for the Utah Department of Environmental Quality Jared Mendenhall told St. George News.

For one thing, Utah doesn’t suffer in general from year-long poor air quality.

Air pollution events, such as the Salt Lake City inversion, occur in the short-term and “about 40 to 50% of that pollution is automobile-based,” he said.

Across the state in March, there was about a 25%-30% reduction in vehicle traffic. This is a substantial reduction that offers scientists at the department a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study air quality in relation to things like emissions from automobiles and other sources. Even still, it will take some time before there are any conclusive results because of various factors that come into play.

“If you just take the average of the last five Marches and compare it to this March, you’re probably going to have very similar numbers.”

Moody clouds over the Pine Valley Mountains, Leeds, Utah, March 21, 2020 | Photo by Aspen Stoddard, St. George News

Adding to the challenge of discerning impacts right now is timing. Utah generally has good air quality during March and April.

“You have spring breezes. You have regular storm fronts coming through. And so, you just don’t see pollution building at the ground level – that’s where we monitor – that’s where EPA says monitor for air pollution,” he said. “There have been satellite images that have shown a reduction.”

Though immediate answers aren’t probable, Mendenhall said they plan to continue to gather and monitor data. In the coming months, they will assess the information to try to interpret any significant impacts during this time.

But Mendenhall said beyond looking at these impacts, this is an important time for people to reflect on how they live their day-to-day lives, whether that’s teleworking or fewer tanks of fuel.

“This is an uncomfortable time and there’s a lot going on,” he said. “We hope that people take this opportunity and reevaluate how they use their automobiles. And perhaps some of the things we’ve learned through this will benefit people when we do have our next pollution event … I’m personally going to the store a lot less. I’m trying to keep it to one time a week, instead of regular trips to the store. And that all helps.”

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Compared to other places such as Los Angeles, where the prevalence of unhealthy air quality is much higher, the health risks are far fewer in Utah, he said. Over the last 35 years, Utah air quality has seen remarkable improvement, particularly looking at northern Utah. Currently, Utah is in attainment of the Clean Air Act and meeting federal clean air standards.

But one emerging issue in Utah, Mendenhall said, is an increase in ground-level ozone.

Long, hot summer days contribute to ozone pollution. Ground-level ozone is created when NOx and VOC’s mix, rise into the atmosphere and break apart by high heat and sunlight. The free oxygen molecules reform as ozone.

“The ozone up high in the atmosphere is good and different from ground-level ozone, which is a pollutant,” he said.

Ozone presents human health risk by breathing it. In some cases, its effects are similar to a sunburn of the lungs.

While most of the pollution issues are still isolated to northern Utah, there is ozone in Washington County, he said, and could become an issue with population and economic growth.

“Where the people live, that’s where the emissions are.”

While most of the short-term decrease in pollution has to do with a reduction of traffic emissions, it’s important to note that a sole reduction in traffic emissions does not negate pollution. And a drop in one air pollutant doesn’t necessarily mean that the air is suddenly healthy across a country.

Stock image | Photo courtesy of Unsplash, St. George News

According to an American Lung Association report released Tuesday, climate change has caused many western communities to see record-breaking spikes in particle pollution due to wildfires. The report also states that nearly half of Americans –150 million – have lived with and breathed polluted air. These unhealthy air impacts are of increased concern amid the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the report.

The report also showed Salt Lake City ranking ninth for the most polluted cities in the U.S. for short-term particle pollution.

“Air pollution is linked to greater risk of lung infection,” American Lung Association president and CEO Harold Wimmer said. “Protecting everyone from COVID-19 and other lung infections is an urgent reminder of the importance of clean air.”

Southern Utah has seen significant traffic reduction since March. One immediately noticeable trend is the decrease in southbound traffic on Interstate 15 leaving the state. In addition, comparing this time in April from 2019 to 2020, there has been about a 77% decrease in traffic on state Route 9 headed into Zion National Park.

But again, how and if these traffic reductions impacted air quality is still to be determined, Mendenhall said, but could serve as an important lesson forward as the Utah population continues. Both Iron County and Washington County in 2019 were noted in the top five fastest growing counties in Utah.

Maybe the pandemic quarantines aren’t necessarily clearing up the earth’s pollution for good, but they might still have some positive long-term benefits.

“This is a bad situation. There’s a lot of people in pain right now,” Mendenhall said. “But perhaps the silver lining might be that people consider how often they need to use that automobile, consider other ways and other behaviors that could help address some of these pollution events in the future.”

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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