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Air Quality & COVID-19

In the months following our collective action to flatten the curve of COVID-19 cases, the air quality improved around the globe. According to University of Utah research, particulate matter pollution in Salt Lake City was reduced 59% as of May 6.

The collective social distancing practices resulted in reducing our community’s overall emissions – and cleaning up Utah’s notoriously bad air. But the lockdowns were an impermanent (and unfortunate) solution: as more cities reopen, emissions – and COVID-19 cases – are again on the rise.

Although Salt Lake City is maintaining an “orange” status for our COVID-19 response, there has been an uptick in cases across Utah. In a city in which public health is harmed by poor air quality, any virus that affects the respiratory system is cause for concern. However, with the knowledge that stay at home orders temporarily reduced our local air pollution, we can learn more about possible ways of improving air quality in the future.

Let’s take a closer look at the ways air quality and COVID-19 interact – and some ways you can help protect the air and each other.

Photo of inversion in Salt Lake valley.

Does Bad Air Make COVID-19 Worse?

Scientists have linked SARS, a virus similar to COVID-19, to air pollution. So far, early studies have indicated that air pollution correlates with the severity of COVID-19. The correlation may not mean air quality directly impacts the COVID-19 mortality rates; nevertheless a preliminary report from a Harvard study has started to put together the trends between air pollution, COVID-19 mortality rates, and, specifically, the impact on communities of color.

As the Guardian points out, quarantines and stay-home orders due to COVID-19 temporarily reduced air pollution, which may have resulted in actually improving public health, albeit briefly. However, even with the brief reprieve from outdoor pollution, indoor air quality is also a concern – especially with more people staying inside.

Just as climate change remains a threat, COVID-19 is still spreading. But taking appropriate steps to address air pollution, may actually help us fight the pandemic and address environmental inequity as we move forward.

Bad Air, COVID-19, and Inequity

Like many environmental issues that are exacerbated by social inequities, air pollution disproportionately affects communities of color. In Salt Lake City, where air quality is notoriously bad, the resulting environmental injustice takes a serious toll. Indeed, a recent University of Utah study found that even on “good” air days, public schools with larger proportions of minority students were exposed to larger quantities of PM 2.5. This particulate matter fills the valley during inversions and can cause severe respiratory illnesses.

An EPA study in 2018 found that PM 2.5 affects people of color 1.28 times more than white people. Black communities experienced 1.54 times higher exposure to particulate matter. Furthermore, studies have demonstrated that while communities of color are more negatively impacted by air pollution, PM 2.5 pollution is disproportionately caused by white people. Salt Lake City is no exception.

Similarly, nationwide COVID-19 has had a higher impact on communities of color due to economic inequities and limited access to healthcare. If we start to address the realities of environmental racism, we will be able to address the many related public health concerns, like the current pandemic.

Photo of SLC street lined with trees.

How to Reduce Air Pollution?

Even with the reductions between March and April, the emissions haven’t been reduced enough to make a lasting impact. Moreover, a recent World Health Organization study demonstrates that air pollution is getting much worse in many parts of the world.

However, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality recently announced that Salt Lake and Provo have reached Clean Air Act compliance for the first time in nearly 10 years. Salt Lake City has many initiatives in place to continue to keep moving the Wasatch Front towards cleaner air.

We can help Salt Lake City stay in attainment by taking small actions every day to reduce our individual emissions. Here are a few ways you can minimize combustion:

  • Walk or bike more! Explore SLC’s bike route or try the GREENbikes.
  • If you do drive, remember to follow the idle free ordinance. If possible, drive electric!
  • Electric lawn equipment can make a big difference in reducing your household air pollution.
  • Limit your wood burning, especially on no burn days.
  • Choose low-VOC paints and solvents when tackling your at-home projects.
  • In the long term, consider electrifying as much as possible in your home. Electric appliances, electric heat pumps, or cleaner hot water heaters are often more energy efficient, and an electrified home can more easily rely on on-site renewable energy sources or a renewable energy grid. Learn more about how to reduce your household energy use here.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how quickly we can clear the air, and keeping the air clear is an important step in protecting everyone from the virus and other illnesses.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Really interesting post to think about the situation and think about new oportunities to improve the way we can work on the clean air.

    Thanks for sharing!

    June 26, 2020

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