You can add the Northeast to the growing list of regions seeing improved air quality amid the ongoing pandemic. We’ve seen these big drops in air pollution in China and Italy. And preliminary data from other parts of the world show similar trends, though it will take time to analyze it.
But NASA has now released official data on what’s going on in the Northeast, which includes cities that have suffered historically from some of the worst traffic congestion in the U.S. The region is also home to New York, which is the current epicenter of the U.S. coronavirus outbreak, and a number of other states that issued strict shelter-in-place orders.
The NASA analysis released on Thursday shows that nitrogen dioxide decreased by 30 percent this March compared to the March average from 2015 to 2019. This March also saw the lowest level of nitrogen dioxide emissions over the past 15 years of record keeping. Human activities like driving, power plants, and industrial activities emit nitrogen dioxide, which explains why they’re low during the coronavirus crisis. In addition, weather can influence where emissions concentrate.
The drop in nitrogen dioxide has helped clear the air, which can have positive health impacts. It can cause respiratory problems and inflame the lungs. That’s especially relevant as the novel coronavirus overwhelms health providers around the world. Research has found that air pollution may result in higher death rates from the virus. Communities of color and low-income communities are the ones that typically experience higher air pollution, highlighting the way even this crisis can’t avoid the racism ingrained in our society. Early results show black Americans are dying at higher rates than other Americans, including in many metro areas in the Northeast.
This improvement in air quality is a reprieve for many, but there are concerns that air pollution levels may spike in some locations due to the Trump administration’s decision to relax pollution enforcement. You can count on the president to allow companies to pollute without consequence during a time when we should really be reigning in emissions that could endanger public health. So even if there have been some air quality improvements, none of us are breathing easier these days.