Covid-19 and air quality

By Ashley Miller

What we can learn from the pandemic that may help Utahns in times of Air Quality crisis.

The coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic has led to unprecedented times globally, to say the least. The overall impact is yet to be seen, including the emotional, physical, and economic toll the outbreak will have on our society. But could policy makers and business leaders gain an air quality takeaway that could lead to greatly reduced emissions during peak air pollution seasons in Utah?

Countries across the globe have implemented various quarantine measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Citizens are being asked, and in some cases forced to stay in their homes and not go to work or recreate, refrain from unnecessary trips, and avoid other people at all costs. The dramatic slowdown in economic activity has left air quality researchers seeing dramatic reductions in air pollution during this time.

Nitrogen oxides, aka NOx, is one of the major contributors, or “precursor pollutants” to the air pollution we experience in Utah during inversion season. NOx is emitted when fuel is burned, as in cars, trucks, and industrial facilities.

During the quarantine in Wuhan, China, NOx concentrations decreased dramatically. Scientists at NASA reported a 30% decrease in air pollution forming in central and eastern China in January and February, due to strict limits on driving and activity during the outbreak.

A significant reduction was also observed throughout France and Southern Europe, due to the early adoption of strict lockdown measures. NOx concentration levels in Italy had been reduced by nearly half, on average. Barcelona and Madrid, Spain, where confinement was ordered mid-March, experienced the same reduction in NOx emissions. Satellite imagery has proven that the reductions in air pollution in these countries can be seen from space.

Cities across the United States are experiencing similar reductions in NOx. Reduced smog across the San Francisco Bay Area after just a week of a shelter in place order has led to all nine Bay Area counties showing “green” air days since March 14. Experts at the Bay Area Air Quality Management District in San Francisco consider it a rare occurrence to have so many consecutive clean air days. These same scientists, however, say it’s still too early to calculate exactly how much less pollution is in the air because so many factors play a role in the recipe for air pollution.

What about the air in Utah?

It sure looks cleaner to the naked eye, and we’ve had a slew of “green” air days in March. But experts at the Utah Division of Air Quality say that March is historically one of the best months of the year in terms of local air quality. Wind and weather patterns usually prevent a buildup of bad air in the spring. So far there isn’t any specific data to point to suggesting that the social distancing recommendations have led to decreased emissions. Just anecdotal observations. The data could change if the restrictions continue into the summer months with high pressure and stagnant air.

We can at least assume that there is less NOx being emitted from cars and trucks. The Utah Department of Transportation has placed checkpoints along the Wasatch Front freeways and roads that show there is roughly a 25-30% decrease in traffic. If you have left your house you’ve probably noticed less congestion on the roads.

Can inversion season in Utah be treated like a public health emergency?

We have a good understanding about air pollution in relation to respiratory illnesses such as asthma and COPD, and we know there is a link to cardiovascular disease. The health impacts of air pollution have been studied for a long time. Hospitalizations increase in Utah during red air days for people suffering from acute or chronic lung diseases. But does the risk rise to the level of a public health emergency? By definition, probably not.

In the United States, a public health emergency declaration releases resources meant to handle an actual or potential public health crisis, like the current coronavirus outbreak. It’s what is declared when there is an emergency need for health care services to respond to a disaster, outbreak of infectious disease, bioterrorist attack, or other significant catastrophic events. So no, the air pollution we experience in Utah during inversion season and summertime ozone season doesn’t rise to the level of imminent threat necessary to declare a public health emergency.

But can Utah’s leaders reflect on this crisis in order to utilize the lessons learned next inversion season? Yes.

In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, employers opted to send many of their employees to work from home, in order to lower the risk of spreading of the virus. In many of the states surrounding Utah, statewide or citywide shelter in place orders have been issued, forcing many businesses to utilize other methods of interaction to stay running. Meetings were held through online platforms. People were not commuting to offices, so less traffic resulted in reduced vehicle emissions.

Businesses hesitant to try teleworking were forced to do just that, and do it quickly. Employers and employees had to work through the bugs of online platforms that hadn’t previously been utilized for day-to-day operations and communications.

If anything good can come out of this crisis, it could be that during the winter months, businesses are now better equipped to let employees stay home and telework. People are getting used to it, and maybe by the end of all this, absent a health emergency, it won’t be so burdensome. The Utah Division of Air Quality can forecast red air days, and businesses might now be better able to begin sending at least some of their employees home to telework during the yellow days.

Teleworking has for a few years been touted as an air quality strategy to be studied in Utah. In the fall of 2018, Utah rolled out a teleworking pilot program involving 136 employees across four state agencies. Early results showed the program led to taxpayer savings and increased productivity, leading to the program expanding to an additional 2,500 state employees. Lieutenant Governor Spencer Cox said the pilot resulted in a reduction of roughly 273 pounds of vehicle emissions. In 2019, the legislature appropriated $6,253,000 in one-time funds for teleworking expenses for state employees, with opportunities for more rural Utah employment.

Individual impacts

This pandemic has given us a real life experience in how reducing our travel can lower emissions from our cars. We have been forced to be more conscious of when and where we drive, in order to limit our potential exposure to a deadly virus. If we carry this new behavior into next inversion season, it might be easier for us to think twice before making unnecessary trips and better plan our outings.

Ashley Miller, J.D., is the vice-chair of Breathe Utah and vice-chair of Utah’s Air Quality Policy Advisory Board. She is also a member of the Salt Lake County Environmental Quality Advisory Commission.


This article was originally published on April 2, 2020.