The changes in Cuyahoga County air quality: Before and during COVID-19 V1

When the COVID-19 pandemic began nearly a year ago, people began traveling less and less as shelter in place and lockdown orders, along with social distancing, became the norm.

With less travel and lockdowns came less pollution and better air for a short period of time. So what kind of effect did it have on Cuyahoga County as well as cities and communities across the globe?

For those in poorer communities and cities and couldn’t leave like wealthier and affluent residents, such as in New York, the initial impact was substantial of dealing with the air combined with COVID lingering around.

“It had initially dramatic impacts on physically, obviously, because of the rate of infection, and serious complications were much greater in cities. The East Coast, especially cities like New York, but also had profound psychological impacts,” said Gerald Torres, a professor of environmental justice and law at Yale.

Especially with Children in Northeast Ohio, University Hospital’s Dr. Aperna Bole noted that the changing climate even prior to COVID had a greater affect on children.

“Children’s health is disproportionately affected by climate change. Children bear the brunt of the burden from climate change for a lot of reasons. They are more vulnerable to environmental health threats than other older people,” Bole said.

“They’re in critical windows of development and growth. Their organ systems are still growing, they breath faster than adults. They even drink more per body weight than adults so they have sort of unique risk factors when it comes to environmental health issues.”

But what does the data say specifically of the trends in Cuyahoga County? Did air quality improve and what happened with pollutants in the air itself?

One particular pollutant, Particulate Matter 2.5, or PM 2.5 for short, can have dangerous affects on the body. While exposure for a short time may be alright, long term exposure in area with a higher density of it would lead to health problems with breathing and even cancer in some cases.

But compared to the collected 2019 data, when lockdowns were enforced in early mid-March 2020, data collected by the EPA shows a drop in the amount of the pollutant present.

With the EPA data for District 6, particulate matter emissions reduced from that March period until approximately late-May to June, when levels began to rise again.

During that same period of time, the Air Quality Index (AQI) also showed improvements, as the lower the number found, the healthier and cleaner the air in the county ended up being.

However, despite the improvements made, not everything may be what it seeems on the surface according to Tim Kovach, the air quality planner at the Northeast Ohio Area Coordinating Agency.

“I mean, there was a definite, there was an air quality benefit, I just don’t think it was as significant as a lot of people seem to be witnessing,” Kovach said.

“If you’re looking at what ozone or PM 2.5 levels were in March of 2019, and just comparing them directly to what they were in March or April of 2020, without counting from the fact that it was on average, colder and better, you’re not really getting an accurate comparison,” he said, noting that meteorology plays a huge part in shaping air pollution on a daily basis.

For now, the studies and full data may take a bit longer to compile, but COVID’s lockdowns did have an impact on the environment in Cuyahoga and beyond.