By Kim Tyrrell
The COVID-19 pandemic may provide states with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rethink air pollution and its impacts on public health and the environment.
Large cities around the U.S and the world are experiencing unprecedented reductions in many of the common air pollutants regulated under the Clean Air Act (CAA), including nitrogen oxide (NOx) and particulate matter (PM).
These precipitous drops may simultaneously reshape how states address pollution and aid in the fight against the novel coronavirus as research conducted by leading disease experts indicates that high levels of air pollution are directly linked to higher death rates.
States take both legislative and regulatory actions to demonstrate compliance with CAA standards, including developing a State Implementation Plan (SIP) which lays forth the state’s strategies and regulations intended to help it meet National Ambient Air Quality Standards, or NAAQS.
These standards initially set forth via the CAA in 1970, and reviewed or amended every five years, ensure public health and address the welfare risks posed by certain widespread hazardous air pollutants.
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has reported seeing a significant reduction in nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide, all criteria pollutants that are regulated under the CAA.
Denverites are seeing the skyline from several miles away, instead of seeing a layer of smog, and they’re breathing easier, too. San Francisco reported “exceptionally good” air quality at the end of March as the city’s air pollution is 38% lower than it was at this time in 2019.
Additionally, shelter-in-place orders across the country have resulted in major disruptions to industrial and business output, and in turn, dramatically reduced the number of vehicles on the road and slowed down or halted other human activities that cause pollution.
These large-scale behavioral changes are giving scientists, transportation planners and air quality agencies a lot to think about. As the economy begins to reopen, how can these short-term air quality improvements be turned into long-term systemic changes? Perhaps more people will work from home now instead of returning to an office environment and maybe instead of hopping on an airplane to attend a meeting or conference, participants will do so virtually.
As we all look for “silver linings,” the improvement in air quality is a welcome sight and one that will likely have a considerable impact on how states address air pollution for years to come.
Kim Tyrrell is a program director in NCSL's Energy, Environment and Transportation Program.