The coronavirus pandemic has brought the region's cleanest air quality its seen in the last 25 years. But, how can we sustain it?

The coronavirus pandemic has brought the region's cleanest air quality its seen in the last 25 years. But, how can we sustain it?

The United States is ranked 10th worldwide for air quality. But our region’s air quality isn’t as pure. The Washington area received an “F” grade for ozone pollution from the American Lung Association. According to the association’s 2019 “State of the Air” report, the D.C. region is one of the top 20 most-polluted places when it comes to ozone pollution, also known as smog.

During the month of April, Washington saw its best air quality in the last 25 years. Experts attribute this change to the stay-at-home order, where the region’s traffic declined by as much as 50 percent.

What are some of the benefits of cleaner air quality? And what can be done to improve the regional air quality moving forward?

Produced by Richard Cunningham



  • 12:00:04

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" on WAMU 88.5. I'm broadcasting from home, so, welcome. Later in the broadcast, we discuss how the visa shortage and the coronavirus pandemic could impact the crabbing industry on the Eastern Shore. But first, the United States is ranked 10th worldwide in terms of air quality. The Washington region hasn't done quite as well. In 2019, the Washington, Baltimore, Arlington area received an "F" rating from the American Lung Association for the region's ozone pollution, while also ranking in the top 20 for most-polluted cities when measuring for ozone pollution. Since stay-at-home orders went into place for Maryland, Virginia and D.C. in March, the region's area quality has improved. So, why is this happening, and what can we learn from it? Joining us now is Susan Anenberg, an Associate Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health, and of Global Heath at George Washington University. Susan Anenberg, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:01:03

    SUSAN ANENBERGThank you for having me.

  • 12:01:04

    NNAMDIAlso joining us, is Monica Median, Founder of Our Daily Planet. Monica Medina, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:01:12

    MONICA MEDINAThanks so much for having me, Kojo.

  • 12:01:15

    NNAMDIMonica, what is Our Daily Planet?

  • 12:01:17

    MEDINAOur Daily Planet is a daily environmental email newsletter. And we're the largest independent one in the country, and we provide updates every day in your inbox at 7:00 a.m. with the latest environmental news, so that people can keep up with that without having to look for it, because it's often hard to find in traditional media sources.

  • 12:01:36

    NNAMDIMonica, what changes are we seeing in air quality here in the Washington region?

  • 12:01:42

    MEDINAWe are seeing an improvement, for sure. And it's definitely because we are driving less. We've seen a 50 percent decrease in the number of cars in our highways. But it could have been much more improved. We haven't improved nearly as much as we've reduced our driving, which is a really interesting thing for us to be thinking about as we try to reduce our emissions going forward.

  • 12:02:08

    NNAMDISusan Anenberg, traditionally, what is the main cause of air pollution in the region?

  • 12:02:14

    ANENBERGAir pollution in the region has many different sources, which is I think why we're seeing that the improvements in air quality may not follow directly from the magnitude of emission changes or even activity level changes of some of the sources that we traditionally think about, like passenger vehicles, which are, of course, the source of emissions that are most affected by these COVID lockdowns. In our region, we have large impacts from these passenger cars, but also trucks and buses play a large role. And off-highway vehicles also contribute substantially to local air quality. We also have problems from regional sources. So, agricultural emissions that sort of blow into our area, and a variety of other, you know, smaller sources and industrial processes.

  • 12:03:13

    NNAMDISusan, compared with other major U.S. cities like Los Angeles and New York, this region's air quality isn't so bad. How drastic is the change? Is it a negligible degree of change, or is this considered significant?

  • 12:03:26

    ANENBERGThis is a pretty big change. You're right. We have been doing better in D.C., compared with some other cities across the country. I have to say, though, that this emission change that we've had during the COVID-19 lockdowns has been aided, to a substantial degree, by very favorable weather we've been having, which has kept air pollution low. So, in fact, we likely would have seen decreases in air pollution, anyway, were it not for the COVID-19 lockdowns, just because we've been having sort of a wet and windy weather that serves to keep air pollution low. But, nevertheless, these are pretty substantial changes that we're seeing.

  • 12:04:13

    NNAMDIAccording to analysis from NPR, car traffic across the country is down 40 percent. However, the declines in pollution in major cities are not as drastic as predicted. Susan, are there any other major factors to air pollution?

  • 12:04:30

    ANENBERGWell, it's really interesting. Yeah. There's a number of different pollutants, and it gets complicated, because they all react together in the air. So, in fact, we can see some of these from space. We can observe from satellites with support from NASA that nitrogen dioxide pollution has been decreasing substantially. And yet we see from ground monitors that other pollutants, like the very tiny, fine particles that we breathe in and ground level ozone, these haven't been decreasing by as much across the board. It will take scientists, you know, months and possibly even years to try to understand why these major reductions in traffic are not leading to large reductions in particulate matter and ozone. These ubiquitous pollutants that are highly regulated and associated with a range of health outcomes. Part of the reason for this is that, you know, the COVID-19 lockdowns are really only having a major effect on passenger vehicle trips.

  • 12:05:31

    ANENBERGThere might be some smaller effects happening with, you know, potential truck traffic down about 15 percent and power plant emissions down maybe 10 or 15 percent. But this really shows us that traffic, on road passenger vehicle traffic is really only one piece of the puzzle. And, in fact, it's a puzzle piece that we've been targeting over the past decades. But they're effective clean air regulations, and therefore, our passenger cars have gotten pretty clean. And so what this shows us is that there's really a multitude of other sources out there that are contributing to air pollution levels and, you know, we need a comprehensive approach to air quality management, rather than targeting individual sectors only.

  • 12:06:15

    NNAMDIMonica Medina, have we seen a change like this before?

  • 12:06:19

    MEDINAWe haven't really seen a change like this before. It's been building up. Our air pollution levels have been increasingly bad over the last 20 years, despite the fact that our car are getting cleaner. So, that does indicate that there are other sources of pollution that are still troubling. And I think, even worse, is the potential that it could get worse once we're driving again, because the Trump administration has rolled back so many of the clean air regulations. And, right now, they're not enforcing many of them because of the lockdown. They've decided that they're going to give industry a pass. And so, in some places, pollution may actually be increasing and we don't even know it, because they're not reporting out the numbers at some of the larger industrial plants and areas. So, there are a lot of factors at play, here. I think the other thing for people to remember as they breathe the cleaner is that even just a small improvement in air quality what seems like a not very big number provides a tremendous benefit to your ability to breathe.

  • 12:07:26

    MEDINAAnd people with asthma or any other lung conditions are actually struggling all the time because of the chronic nature of the pollution, this ozone pollution. And we all now can see what a difference it makes when we have even just a small reduction. And if we continued going in the right direction in terms of reducing the pollution that comes from cars and trucks and power plants we would continue to feel these benefits going forward. But the worry here is that with a return to regular activities and the continued rollback of our clean air regulations, things will get worse.

  • 12:08:04

    NNAMDIWe're talking with Monica Medina, she is Founder of Our Daily Planet, and Susan Anenberg, an Associate Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health and of Global Health at George Washington University. Susan Anenberg, Monica touched on this, but can you expand, what kind of health issues does air pollution cause, and what are some benefits of cleaner air?

  • 12:08:24

    ANENBERGThere is quite a range of health outcomes that air pollution is associated with. And, as time goes on, we learn more and more about these. So, we know that air pollution is associated with cardiovascular disease, respiratory diseases like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, even early death, birth outcomes like short gestational age and low birth weight, diabetes, chronic kidney disease. There's really a wide range of health outcomes that are associated with air pollution, and one thing that we're even learning as we speak -- and, you know, this will become clearer over the coming months and years -- is whether air pollution is a risk factor for increased severity of COVID-19. There's some early evidence that suggests that particulate matter, and potentially also other air pollutants, may increase risk of fatality and other, you know, severe metrics related to COVID-19.

  • 12:09:34

    ANENBERGSo, in fact, reducing air pollution can be viewed as sort of preparation on a population basis for unforeseen risk factors like COVID-19, where if we improve air quality, we improve overall health status of the general population and make us more resilient to unforeseen risk factors like viruses that come along.

  • 12:09:59

    NNAMDISusan, if there is, in fact, some connection identified between air quality and COVID-19, who is at risk?

  • 12:10:08

    ANENBERGWell, it appears that the underlying risk factors for COVID-19, those comorbidities that are influencing increased risk of fatality from COVID-19 -- cardiovascular diseases and potentially respiratory diseases -- these are the diseases that are also affected by air pollution. So, you know, we will need to research over the next months and years what are the biological mechanisms that are leading to these synergistic effects, these combined effects of air pollution exposure and in COVID-19 if they are, in fact, occurring. But it does appear that potentially those who are affected by cardiovascular diseases potentially also respiratory diseases may have a higher risk for increased severity of COVID-19.

  • 12:11:02

    NNAMDIHere's Michael in Washington D.C. Michael, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:11:06

    MICHAELHello, Kojo and guests. Great to be here. Great show, as always. I'm concerned about these people who stay in their car with the engine running, despite clement weather. You can understand if it's dead of winter, or perhaps in the middle of July, and outside it's very difficult to deal with. But when it's 60 degrees weather, here are these people waiting for someone and doing a number of things, and they leave the engine purring away. And surely, that must be some form of pollution. Isn't there a law whereby you can only keep your engine on for three minutes, and then turn it off? I try to go up to the occasional car, but it's uphill battle.

  • 12:12:02

    NNAMDII hear you. Michael, we've got to take a short break. But we're going to get an answer to that question when we return, when we talk about what's likely to happen when the stay-at-home orders end. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:12:34

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're having a conversation about the reduction in air pollution in this region during the stay-at-home orders that were caused by the coronavirus pandemic. We're talking with Monica Medina, Founder of Our Daily Planet, and Susan Anenberg, an Associate Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health and of Global Health at George Washington University. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Monica Medina, you heard Michael's question about people leaving their cars idling for a long time, even though the weather is warm. But, after that, parts of Maryland and Virginia are already opening back up, and the rest of the region will likely open back up in the coming weeks. And that means more people driving, more cars idling. How quickly are we likely to revert to poorer air quality?

  • 12:13:22

    MEDINAI think it's pretty quick. When the summer weather really hits us, and oftentimes when we have a very cool spring, the summer will be particularly hot. When that hot weather hits, we are going to see the number of bad air days go back up. And our reduction hasn't been that great as we've mentioned already today. And the summertime is really when people struggle. And we have 170,000 children in the region with asthma and more than 700,000 adults. If you put, you know, all those people together, they're struggling for air in the summertime when our ozone problems definitely get worse. So, we should be trying to do more as a country to decrease our auto emissions. I appreciate the listener's question, because we definitely can do a better job of decreasing auto emissions if the, you know, the nation's laws are pushing us in that direction.

  • 12:14:22

    NNAMDIIndeed, Susan Anenberg, if you wanted to also respond to Michael's issue about people leaving their cars idling for long periods of time. I think I heard someone suggest that that might be illegal.

  • 12:14:34

    ANENBERGYeah. Well, it's always good to be aware of what are the sources of emissions that are surrounding you, especially if you're somebody who has an underlying condition or you have children who are playing nearby or are affected by asthma. My kids' schools have signs up that say, you know, "no idle zones." And these should be posted everywhere certainly where kids are playing and where people may idle their cars. But I think Monica makes a really good point that, you know, our cars have been getting cleaner over time, but that does not mean that we are not going to see increases in air pollution as we get back to regular life. I think that's somewhat of a given. As soon as the emissions increase and potentially combined with weather changes that might lead to more hot and stagnant air in the D.C. area, I think it is expected that we will continue to see some poor air quality days over the coming months.

  • 12:15:38

    NNAMDIMichael, thank you very much for you call. This question to both of you, but I'll start with you, Monica Medina. What can we do in the long term to continue to improve air quality in the region?

  • 12:15:48

    MEDINAWe can continue to try to use renewable energy and to convert more and more of our power to renewable energy. We can drive cleaner cars, and then we can do things like change some of our lifestyle habits just a little bit. If we ate a little bit less meat, if we walked or rode our bikes or took public transportation a little bit more, all those things can make a big difference. So, there are things that we as individuals can do, and there are things that the government can do to improve our air quality. And I think what we now appreciate is how much we have to gain if we do. It doesn't take an awful lot to improve our air quality and for us all to feel it and experience it and appreciate it.

  • 12:16:36

    NNAMDISame question to you, Susan Anenberg.

  • 12:16:37

    ANENBERGThere are things that individuals can do. And I think Monica mentioned a few of them, eating less meat and driving less. I think this is a problem that is so pervasive and one in which we all affect each other. So, the air that I breathe is not only impacted by my own behavior, but all of my neighbors and all of the people in my city, and even in the surrounding area. So, this is a problem that really requires government intervention at multiple levels. You know, we need stringent national policies that govern the amount of emissions that can come out of vehicle tailpipes and smokestacks. We need regional agreements and thankfully D.C. has been a leader in signing on to regional agreements like a new transportation climate initiative to work across state lines since air pollution blows across state lines.

  • 12:17:37

    ANENBERGAnd then there's also an urban level to this. There's urban planning that can make it easier for people to bike and walk to work. So, we're not, you know, biking in traffic and we're protected via protected bike lanes. These are all ways that we can act on multiple governmental scales to ensure that everybody is breathing clean air.

  • 12:18:01

    NNAMDIHere now is Ed in Washington, D.C. Ed, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:18:06

    EDHow are you, Kojo? I'm speaking as a veteran, if you will, of the effort of air quality. My 10 years of experience in the New York Metropolitan Planning Organization, NYMTC, in downstate New York. And my primary function for those almost eight-nine years was to seek air quality conformity through transportation and congestion management through air quality programs that we had under the various transportation acts at the time. One of the biggest problems that we have is realizing that cars are only one-third of the problem, maybe 30 percent of the problem. It's the other two-thirds where we have the power generators of large density buildings, apartment buildings, tenements, facilities, things like that. Farming, of course. And, the thing is, how do we deal with that?

  • 12:19:09

    EDWe had some of the greatest arguments not only for nitrous oxide, (unintelligible) and CO, but we had one for one that we seem to forget about, and that's PM fine, particulate materials fine. There was several studies by Columbia's Medical School, the Mailman Reports on the impacts specifically of PM fine on the quality of life of people, specifically women of childbearing age--

  • 12:19:39


  • 12:19:40

    ED--and the elderly, which seem to be the target, if you will, of this new COVID-19, this novel coronavirus.

  • 12:19:49

    NNAMDIOkay. Allow me to have Susan Anenberg and Monica Medina respond. First you, Susan Anenberg.

  • 12:19:53

    ANENBERGRight. I think that's a great question. I would point out, again, that, you know, transportation has been getting cleaner over time in the United States. This isn't universal, though. We saw with Dieselgate, a few years back, with diesel passenger cars that they were emitting far more than we thought. Luckily, we have a lower portion of diesels in the passenger vehicle fleet in the U.S., and our cars here are relatively clean. But that points the light more at trucks and buses and off-road construction and machinery that haven't been cleaned up as much as passenger vehicles in the U.S. And then other sources, as you said, like power plants and industrial sources and agricultural sources. And so what this points to is the need for comprehensive air quality management, where you don't only look at one particular source. I'm not suggesting that's what's being done.

  • 12:20:51

    ANENBERGBut just pointing out that we need a comprehensive approach, here, where you assess all of the various sources of emissions and their impacts on air quality in different areas and try to address them in a way we can. And I would just point out one more thing, that if we build back from this crisis more sustainably and invest in some decarburization actions that reduce greenhouse gases, those would also come with massive air pollution and health co-benefits. So, I think, in a way, we have an opportunity here to build back more sustainably and healthier, and we don't need to return to the status quo.

  • 12:21:37

    NNAMDIMonica Medina, we only have about a minute left. But caller Maryanne of Alexandria, who couldn't stay on the line, says: Reduced air traffic seems to be improving air quality. Any evidence of that?

  • 12:21:47

    MEDINAThere is some evidence of that, as well. Airline travel is a significant source of air pollution. It's just a harder one for us to fix, because there are not alternatives. And we will need to travel again at increased levels. But they may not go back to exactly where they were. And I just want to emphasize again what Susan said about building back better. If we can come out of this with a sense of what we have to gain, which is much cleaner air, and how we can do it, which is to invest in new technologies, we'll be much better off in the future.

  • 12:22:27

    NNAMDIMonica Medina is Founder of Our Daily Planet. Susan Anenberg is an Associate Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health and of Global Health at George Washington University. Thank you both for joining us. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, how the visa shortage and the coronavirus pandemic could impact the crabbing industry on the Eastern Shore. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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