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Californians breathe cleaner air during stay-at-home order

KCRA Sacramento logo KCRA Sacramento 4/9/2020
a city street: - © Provided by KCRA Sacramento -

Californians may be able to breathe a little easier because the air is cleaner now in the state than it has been in a while.

“It’s super-duper clean,” said Professor Anthony Wexler, director of UC Davis’ Air Quality Research Center.

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The cleaner air is due to the statewide stay-at-home order during the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Researchers are looking at the impact of the order and what it means for California and its residents.

a close up of a map © Harvard University

Cleaner Air

Sacramento has seen weeks of clean air during the statewide stay-at-home order, according to data from the EPA. March saw more “good” quality air days than in February.

That’s no coincidence, according to air quality experts.

Air pollution started improving when the stay-at-home order went into effect in March, which kept millions of drivers off the roads.

“There’s very little traffic compared to what there normally is, and so there’s much less emissions from cars and trucks than there normally are,” Wexler said. “That gives us this blessing at this time where we need as many blessings as we can get. It gives us the blessing of wonderful air quality.”

a screenshot of a cell phone: EPA AirData © U.S. EPA AirData EPA AirData

Less Traffic

According to Will Arnold with Caltrans, weekend traffic on state highways has dropped by up to 51% and weekday traffic has dropped by up to 37% under the mandatory order. The transportation agency compared April 1 to 7 of this year to the same seven-day period last year.

In Los Angeles, the normally smoggy city is seeing its longest stretch of clarity in over two decades, according to EPA data.

Dr. Yifang Zhu is a professor of environmental health sciences at UCLA. She said researchers there have seen a 20% improvement in air quality in Southern California.

Pollution Linked to COVID-19 Deaths

This week, there are grim findings from Harvard University. A new study found people living in counties with higher air pollution levels before the outbreak are more likely to die from the coronavirus than people living in areas with historically cleaner air.

The study looked at nearly every county across the country, including those in California.

Researchers compared each county’s COVID-19 death rate with corresponding PM 2.5 levels, or particle pollution levels like soot, ash and diesel fuel.

“Those particles get deep into the lung. And they cause a wide range of health problems, including heart attacks," Wexler said. "They’re mainly responsible for why people are dying from air pollution."

Wexler is a colleague of the Harvard study's lead author.

“The Los Angeles area, Fresno, Bakersfield, Sacramento, they’re some of the worst air pollution levels of PM 2.5, which is what we’re talking about here, in the country," Wexler said. "So that could mean us having a higher mortality rate among people who get infected with this COVID-19 virus and that’s bad news."

One health expert agrees that the Harvard study shows that particle pollution is a serious threat to public health.

“Exposure to particle pollution presents a real and persistent health threat to our lungs, to our hearts and can have a wide range of impacts from asthma attacks to premature deaths,” said Will Barrett.

Barrett is the director of Clean Air Advocacy for the American Lung Association in California.

“It gives us a real glimpse into what our roads could look like if all the vehicles potentially had no tailpipes, if we shift to zero-emission vehicles or we shift to a transportation solution that offers real alternatives to driving in gridlock,” he said.

Air quality and health experts said this crisis in our present could potentially highlight solutions for our future.

“It just strengthens the hand of California saying this is a serious thing, this is hurting our citizens and we need to continue rolling back air pollution emissions to protect the health of people living in California,” Wexler said.

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