The skyline in Mumbai, India

Air quality has definitely improved during the pandemic. Air monitoring stations in Rhode Island and the greater Northeast have seen about a 30% decrease in pollutants like particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, and ozone.

A few months of cleaner air aren’t enough to reverse climate change. But these improvements in air quality are a great example of how quickly our environment can improve if we change our behavior. Maybe this experience will motivate us to create stricter air quality standards in the future?

 Megan Hall: Welcome to Possibly, where we take on huge problems like the future of our planet and break them down into small questions with unexpected answers. I’m Megan Hall. 

You’ve probably seen pictures comparing famous places before and after the start of the pandemic. Skies that were once smoggy and grey are now clear and blue. That made us wonder, how is COVID-19’ affecting our air quality?

We had Andrea Grossmann and Luci Jones from our Possibly Team look into this. Welcome, Andrea and Luci! 

Andrea Grossman: Hi, Megan! 

Luci Jones: Thanks for having us!

Megan Hall: So, how is COVID-19 affecting our air? 

Andrea Grossman: Well, to get a better idea of the effects of the pandemic on air pollution, we talked to Isha Chawla, a senior at Brown University and a member of our Possibly team. She’s currently at home in Mumbai, India. 

Luci Jones: Isha says she’s already noticed some significant changes since her last trip home in December.

Isha Chawla: The skies were kind of grayish and you know, you couldn’t see super far and now if you look outside there you can see all the way across the bay.

Megan Hall: Ok, so visually, something is changing, but what are scientists seeing when they analyze the quality of our air?

Andrea Grossman: Well, here in Rhode Island, the Department of Environmental Management has air monitoring sensors all over the state. 

Luci Jones: They measure pollutants like particulate matter, which is just a fancy way of saying tiny dust particles that get into your lungs. 

Andrea Grossman: these dust particles come from a lot of places, but they’re often kicked up by construction and other industries. 

Luci Jones: The state also monitors gases in the air, like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, and carbon monoxide, which come from burning fossil fuels. 

Megan Hall: Why do states collect this information?

Andrea Grossman: Well, air quality has a huge effect on our health. The EPA estimates that 200,000 Americans die each year from diseases caused by air pollution.

Megan Hall: So, are these monitoring stations noticing a decrease in air pollutants now that Rhode Island has a stay at home order? 

Luci Jones: To find out, we spoke with Professor Meredith Hastings, an atmospheric scientist at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society. 

Andrea Grossman: Meredith says compared to what you typically see at this time of the year, there’s already been a big drop in the levels of air pollution. 

Meredith Hastings: there’s about a 30 to 40% decrease just since the over the last month in pollutants… compared to the… previous five year average for this time of year.

Luci Jones: These decreases are happening in cities across the world. 

Megan Hall: Is this just because people are driving less? 

Luci Jones: Yes, the decrease in travel has played a significant role. But air pollutants are also decreasing because industries aren’t operating at full capacity.

Andrea Grossman: Despite the serious health effects of air pollution, we don’t usually talk that much about air quality here in the US. But Meredith says right now, it’s hard to ignore.

Meredith Hastings: we’re talking about it right now, because there’s such a marked change that’s visible and noticeable to people. And we’ve never had anything, you know, like this, right? We’ve never had a reduction in our emissions so quickly, to be able to actually experiment with that directly.

Megan Hall: So if air quality is improving, does that mean we’re chipping away at the effects of climate change, too? 

Luci Jones: In the short term, yes. Greenhouse gas emissions are falling. But unfortunately, climate change is a long term problem.

Andrea Grossman: Unless we permanently change how we fuel our society, a few months drop in air pollution won’t create a long-term fix.  

Luci Jones: What the pandemic has done is given us a before and after snapshot. It’s shown us what happens when we significantly cut emissions, and how much cleaner our air could be.

Andrea Grossman: And Meredith says COVID-19 might give us a new reason to tighten our air quality standards. 

Luci Jones: That could mean legislation that changes our definition of “acceptable” levels of pollutants in the air. – a potential win for our immediate and long term health. 

Megan Hall: Great! Thanks, Andrea and Luci. 

That’s it for today. For more information, or to ask a question about the way you recycle, use energy, or make any other choice that affects the planet, go to the public’s radio dot org slash possibly. 

Possibly is a co-production of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society and the Public’s Radio.  

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