Stay-at-Home Orders Contribute to Cleaner Air

A South Coast Air Quality District map from Tuesday, March 31, shows “green” (“good”) air quality levels across much of Los Angeles amid some of the best air quality the area has seen in some time.

Perhaps the one silver lining of the horrific novel coronavirus appears to be taking shape in the Los Angeles basin, which the American Lung Association has named the smoggiest metropolitan area in the United States for 19 of the last 20 years.

With next-to-no traffic in the sky and on the ground, the air quality is the best it’s been in some time. The Air Quality Management District has reported good air quality for three straight weeks. Views from Malibu into Los Angeles are the best they have been in years.

The air quality index used to measure pollution and the safety of our air has been categorized as “green” or labeled “good” on various environmental websites. Those categories mean lower pollutants in the atmosphere lessen the health risks usually posed by breathing in our commonly smoggy conditions.

While sparse traffic on our typically crowded freeways surely must contribute to cleaner air quality, some experts are reluctant to attribute the good conditions solely on stay-at-home practices. They say rainy weather and recent winds are also a big factor.

“Air quality has been very good over the last few weeks, but day-to-day changes in the weather are by far the most important factor impacting pollution concentrations. The recent increases in rainfall and stormy weather within the South Coast Air Basin are likely a major factor and has made it difficult to differentiate the impact of the weather from the reduction in mobile source emissions due to COVID-19,” said Bradley J. Whitaker, senior public information specialist with South Coast Air Quality Management District, in an email to The Malibu Times.

California Air Resources Board Public Information Officer Dave Clegern also responded similarly by email.

“There are many factors that can affect air quality, and while traffic is certainly one of them, the air this time of year is generally noticeably cleaner due to the weather being cooler, which reduces the formation of ozone (smog),” Clegern said. “Recent rains also have a similar impact.” 

Still, as danger of the novel coronavirus heightens in Los Angeles the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA) warns those living in polluted cities are more at risk from COVID-19. The EPHA maintains air pollution contributes to respiratory diseases. Higher mortality rates from the virus are being linked to those with respiratory issues since they may be less able to fight off lung infections. The EPHA suggests, “By lowering air pollution levels, we can help the most vulnerable in their fight against this and any possible future pandemics.’’ The group’s acting secretary general, Sascha Marschang, was quoted as saying, “Governments should have tackled chronic air pollution long ago, but have prioritized the economy over health.” Marschang put much blame on the auto industry, citing “dirty vehicles” as major polluters.

As COVID-19 takes its toll on human lives and the economy, it is yet to be seen whether it will leave a lasting impact on our environment.

With stay-at-home orders still in place for the near future in the south coast air basin, Whitaker continues to take note.

“In general, a reduction in miles driven by mobile sources carrying people and goods will lead to a reduction in emissions,” he said. “That said, it is still too early to tell what the overall impact has been or will be on ambient pollutant levels. Unfortunately, these air pollution benefits are occurring during an otherwise difficult time. However, it is an example of what air quality could be if emission levels are successfully reduced permanently.”