Just a few months ago, very few people would have believed newspaper headlines reporting that Los Angeles is among the top three cities in the world for clean air. However, that’s the reality we’re facing regarding the air above the streets of LA today. In fact, noted green entrepreneur and environmentalist Daniel Madariaga said LA stands with Sydney, Australia, and Denver as the three cities with the cleanest air globally.
Perhaps counterintuitively, this improvement in air quality is actually a byproduct of the COVID-19 lockdown. Since California governor Gavin Newsom and LA mayor Eric Garcetti implemented state and citywide lockdowns in March of 2020, much of the estimated 6.8 million cars that travel LA’s notoriously congested freeways are absent. As a result, it took mere days to renew the atmosphere, lessening the effects of the once-smog-heavy air and improving quality of life right along with it.
Global Air Improvements
Los Angeles is not the only major urban center enjoying brilliant blue skies and wonderful clean air for the first time in years. Social media posts are replete with clear-air photographs from major cities around the globe. To date, these include some of the most-polluted cities in the world such as Beijing and Mumbai.
Lockdown images from the northern Indian state of Punjab show that residents can view the magnificent crags of the Himalayan Mountains are visible from city streets for the first time in years. Satellite images of Wuhan, the Chinese city believed to be the location where COVID-19 arose, were also remarkably clear at the beginning of March, indicating that there, too, lockdown has provided a noticeable improvement in air quality.
The Numbers Behind the Clean Air
Dr. Yifang Zhu, professor of environmental health sciences at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health noted that Los Angeles has experienced a 40% drop in PM 2.5, a microscopic airborne pollutant caused by heavy vehicular traffic. PM 2.5 has been linked to minor respiratory problems including coughing, difficulty breathing, and decreased lung function. In addition, polluted air contributes to numerous illnesses including asthma, emphysema and lung cancer.
In addition, a Harvard University study by Rachel Nethery and Xiao Wu has made a direct link to PM 2.5 levels in the air and 15% higher death rates in people infected with COVID-19. For surviving patients, researchers remain concerned regarding how airborne pollutants will continue to exacerbate the lingering respiratory effects of the disease. For COVID-19 survivors in once-heavily-polluted cities like LA, the potential return of pollutants could pose a respiratory risk for years to come.
Will the Clean Air Last?
With crucial single cell genomics research and other biotechnology lead under development to utilize widespread antibody testing techniques and formulate an eventual vaccine, the COVID-19 virus may be in LA’s rearview within the next year. However, even as research continues, the eventual reopening of the global economy will mean a return to life as normal – including a return to our old driving habits. Many environmentalists and social observers hope this development will have a lasting impact on the environmental awareness of Southern Californians, but such notions have not yet shown promise as parts of Asia return to business.
Even as Wuhan itself returns to a state of reduced lockdown, air pollution has returned in force. In fact, recent time lapse videos of Beijing, Wuhan, and Hong Kong show levels returning to near-pre-lockdown levels just weeks after lockdowns are lifted. Most experts agree that few cities or nations worldwide are likely to muster the political will or the economic resources to stop continued air pollution.
US-based environmental groups are holding out hope for cities like LA and New York City, referring to the COVID-19 pandemic as a wake-up call that should open the eyes of citizens and government agencies alike to our responsibility to be effective stewards of the Earth. Adopting broad policy changes to improve air quality standards should be a priority moving forward, both to protect the Earth and the people who live here. Now, in the wake of COVID-19, attention to halting pollution and its effects on the respiratory system are more crucial than ever before.