Something good comes from Covid: Air pollution decreased dramatically during lockdown

By Ashley Miller

From March through April when Utahns were asked to “stay home, stay safe” as much as possible to reduce the number of Covid-19 cases, the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) saw a decrease in traffic of about 40-50%. As a result of so many fewer passenger cars and trucks on Utah’s roads, pollutants that lead to the formation of both PM2.5 and ozone pollution decreased significantly.

According to Logan Mitchell, research assistant professor from University of Utah Atmospheric Science, the Covid-19 lockdowns represent a unique experiment where emissions have decreased dramatically over a short period of time, presenting an opportunity for atmospheric scientists to understand how emissions affect air pollution concentrations.

Pollution from the tailpipes of cars and trucks is loaded with chemicals that create disaster for Utah’s air. Nitrogen oxides, aka NOx, is a major contributor, or “precursor pollutant,” to the air pollution we experience in Utah during inversion season. NOx is emitted when fuel is burned, as in cars, trucks, buildings and industrial facilities.

During Utah’s Stay Home, Stay Safe policy, many private and state businesses closed offices and sent their employees to work from home. Several businesses closed completely, and large group gatherings were prohibited.

Mitchell and his team reported a reduction in NOx emissions of 37-56% on the Hawthorne monitor in Salt Lake City. PM2.5 was 41% lower than it usually is during this time of year. The decreases in emissions could be seen from space.

Satellite imagery showed astounding reductions in these harmful air pollutants, like the imagery in news coverage that showed dramatic decreases in air pollution across China and Europe.

Air quality is typically “good” during March and April, but the stay home policies made the air quality noticeably better. And when it comes to protecting human health, any improvement in air quality is important. Exposure to even the slightest amounts of air pollution can lead to adverse health problems.

In a presentation to the Utah Economic Development and Workforce Services Interim Committee on June 15, Mitchell said the reduction in precursor pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions was so significant it met and exceeded the 30-year goal set out in the Kem C. Gardner Climate Policy Institute’s Air Quality and Climate Roadmap.

A global pandemic is not exactly how we want to reduce emissions. Yet it has proven that Utahns can do it. And we can do it quickly. These kinds of changes in our daily routines move the needle immediately.

Teleworking for cleaner air

One Utah lawmaker is committed to continuing this pattern of improved air quality. Senator Dan McCay is planning to open a bill file, with the Workforce Services committee backing him, that will call upon state agencies to have more employees telework.

Teleworking could be one “silver bullet” solution to Utah’s air quality problem that we’ve all been looking for.

Teleworking has been a recommended policy for improving Utah’s air for a few years. A pilot project that began in 2018 with a couple hundred state employees was wildly successful, leading to over $6 million in funding in 2019 to expand the program to about 2,500 state employees. The number one goal of the teleworking program was improving Utah’s air quality. Leading up to the pandemic, the program was slowly expanding to reach the 2,500-employee target, with the idea that more employees could be added as time went on. The original estimate of how many state employees could telework was 38% of the state workforce, roughly 8,500 employees. Equipment was being purchased, I.T. departments expanded, all the little things that take time to get teleworking for a few thousand employees was underway.

The pandemic hit hard and fast, and in mid-March, virtually over night, state offices shut down and employees were sent to work from home. About 8,500 of them, in fact.

Many other private and public sector businesses sent employees to work from home as well. There were bugs to work out and schedules and habits to adjust in order to make it work. But Utahns made it work. We adjusted. It was challenging and sometimes painful, but we made it work.

During the Workforce Services committee meeting, Senator McCay pointed out that he was skeptical of the efficiency of teleworking before the pandemic, but after experiencing it and seeing the improved air quality, he wants to see more state employees teleworking. And he wants more than the target goal originally set in the program. He wants the Utah Department of Human Resources Management to classify every state position as either “worksite essential” or “worksite non-essential” to start. He believes that this task will show more than 38% of the state’s workforce is worksite non-essential.

Inversion season public health emergency?

We know a lot about air pollution’s relation to respiratory illnesses and we know there is a link to cardiovascular disease. Hospitalizations increase in Utah during red air days for people suffering from acute or chronic lung diseases.

Inversion season doesn’t rise to the level of a public health emergency. But there is a lot we can learn from the current public health emergency. As Mitchell pointed out, we’ve undergone quite the human experiment with the stay home orders, and the results are in. Maybe now more of our government leaders will consider the PM2.5 pollution that steadily builds up during inversion season, harming human health, to be treated like a public health emergency.

Businesses from both the public and private sector now can better plan for the upcoming inversion season. They can choose to define their employees as “worksite essential or non-essential” as Senator McCay wants to do for state employees. They can make decisions that follow the forecasting by the Division of Air Quality and plan for their employees to telecommute before air quality starts to decline.

Developing air quality policy usually involves looking at long-term solutions that can take years to implement and even longer to see results. Teleworking is now a proven solution we can implement immediately.

Other individual impacts

The air quality data gathered during the state’s shutdown proves that the air really does get better with fewer vehicles on the road. Each of us needs to think about this every time we get in our cars. We must ask ourselves: Is this trip absolutely necessary?

We need to also remember that emissions coming from our buildings are currently the second largest contributor to air pollution in Utah. Buildings emit NOx when we burn natural gas in our appliances. Look for an Ultra-Low NOx model when you need to replace your water heater or look for an electric model. Keep your air conditioner and furnace tuned up to run more efficiently. Trade in your gas-powered lawn equipment for electric. Never burn wood, or if you must, make sure it’s a “good air” day.   It is on us to be a part of the solution.


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

This article was originally published on July 1, 2020.