COVID lockdowns improved the quality of air we breathed, but the impact may be less than originally thought

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Cuyahoga County and the rest of the world hunkered down at home and more people began working remotely.

Despite the disruption to people’s daily lives and travel routines, some benefits did come from the early days of stay at home orders. One of the more beneficial changes resulting from lockdowns was a reported increase in air quality.

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

“There was a definite 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.

Particulate Matter 2.5, or PM 2.5, are tiny solid particles in the air that come from sources like car exhaust, smokestacks, fireworks, among other contributors to air pollution that reduce the quality of air we breathe in.

“The very smallest particles of PM 2.5 known as ‘nanoparticles’ can pass through the lungs and into our blood stream, where they can raise blood pressure and cause blockages, leading to strokes and heart attacks,” UK-based environmental journalist and author Tim Smedley said in an email.

“This is not just a big city problem – it’s an anywhere with cars or smoke problem,” Smedley said in the email.

In the above graph, data collected from the Environmental Protection Agency’s website for the Cuyahoga District 6 collection site saw reduced levels of PM 2.5 across 2019 and 2020 averaged by month. The levels ended up lower than 2019 but the effects seem to be less drastic than originally thought.

Gerald Torres, a professor of environmental justice and law at Yale University, explained how unhealthy exposure to the finer particulate matter of PM 2.5 impacts those exposed to it.

“One of the reasons it causes the negative health consequences that we see is that your exposure to them is more pronounced and because just the normal respiration causes a deeper inhalation of the particulate matter, they lodge themselves in the lungs and then create whatever injuries, however small,” Torres said, linking such exposure to asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

Even prior to the public health crisis over the past year, the changing climate and air quality levels had a greater affect on children according to University Hospital’s Dr. Aperna Bole.

“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,” she said.

While NOACA’s Tim Kovach says the PM 2.5 drop and subsequent rise in air quality came from the early days of the pandemic, what people ended up observing would allow for benefits in public transport to cut down on pollutant emissions and help increase overall air quality.

“We tend to construct transportation systems to deal with those demand periods. And if we’re able to see that, if we’re able to shift some of that VMC around so that we could potentially reconfigure the road network to expand alternative transportation modes.”