Can the pandemic’s pollution plunge spur a smog solution?

Air pollution in London. (Photo source: Flickr Creative Commons)
Air pollution in London. (Photo source: Flickr Creative Commons)

From Manila to New Delhi to Los Angeles, residents are feeling some ironically positive effects from weeks of sharply reduced vehicle traffic due to coronavirus lockdowns, quarantines, and shelter-in-place orders.

Millions of urban dwellers are for the first time learning what it is like to breathe air largely free of pollutants.

And for those who avoid the worst effects of the virus, decreased air pollution may also be a life saver.

Tiny, deadly pollution particles

“PM2.5” is the technical term for “fine particulate matter” — pollutants with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less.

This is tiny enough to enter the bloodstream and to penetrate the membranes protecting the lungs.

PM2.5 pollution is believed to be the major culprit for a host of serious health problems — and is estimated to kill 7 million people worldwide every year.

While it is certain that cities will return to their smoggy pre-COVID-19 conditions once the “lockdowns” are lifted, some advocates hope that that the experience of breathing clean air, however brief, will spur urban societies to demand political solutions to pollution.

“Drastic drop”

A new study by IQAir has measured “before and after” PM2.5 concentrations in 10 leading world cities — and found a “drastic drop” in contaminants in all but one.

New Delhi is leading the pack with a 60 percent decrease in pollution.

Many residents of the Indian metropolis, having never left the city, had no idea what clean air actually looked (and smelled, tasted and felt) like.

Seoul, Wuhan, and even Los Angeles were cleaner than ever.

Only Rome registered an increase, apparently tied to higher usage of home heating systems.

The Manila miracle

In the megacity of Manila in the Philippines, ten micrograms of PM2.5 per cubic meter of air is considered the upper limit for safe breathing.

Before the city was locked down in one of the world’s harshest COVID-19 quarantine regimes, PM2.5 levels often reached above 30 micrograms during rush hour, and peaked above 100 micrograms.

Now, concentrations are as low as 7.1 micrograms per cubic meter.

Just as pollution drops in China saved the lives of thousands of children, many lives will be saved in Manila from the — temporarily — clean air.

Elected officials are now trying to envision how to move toward cleaner air, permanently.

London Mayor Sidiq Khan said that “dramatically” improved air quality in his city “should not just be temporary, as Londoners deserve clean air at all times.”

He said after the pandemic has passed he wants to “eradicate air pollution permanently” through policy reforms.

Other pollution sources

Despite these major improvements in air quality, some scientists insist that it’s too early to be sure that pandemic lockdowns are having a generally positive effect.

As quoted in the scientific journal Nature, Dan Goldberg of Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois said it’s too soon to say whether drops in New York City or Los Angeles are actually significant — or even due to reduced emissions from vehicles and factories.

For example, says Goldberg, an unusually rainy period in Los Angeles might also be driving improved air quality.

Meanwhile, in Mexico, agricultural burning, to clear land for farming and ranching, has actually increased air pollution levels.

Political solutions — and innovations

Looming behind all the complex but strangely encouraging news about air pollution and public health is the near-certainty that countries will soon ramp up industrial production and reopen factories, and vehicles will once again clog the streets.

That means air pollution will once again increase — and evidence indicates that people who live in regions with severe air pollution are more vulnerable to COVID-19, which kills primarily by attacking the lungs.

A short essay in Scientific American notes that the Trump Administration’s efforts to boost manufacturing by weakening air pollution regulations may help the industrial economy, but also exposes people to increased health risks.

The essay’s author, Maryann Cusimano Love, an international relations professor at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., says that a better political solution is to abandon coal power — which produces smog, lead, mercury and arsenic — and instead use economic stimulus programs to “invest in clean air.”

These include “scaling up the use of many available new technologies” already identified by the federal government, such as converting transit and trucking fleets to zero-emissions vehicles.

She writes that government stimulus money could also attract private investment in wind power, solar power in the South and West, hydropower near coasts and rivers, and biomass anywhere that there is abundant agriculture and paper and lumber industries.

Sources: CNBC (1, 2), Mongabay, Nature, Scientific American

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