Smog pollution persists despite coronavirus shutdowns. Here's why. - Front Page Live

Smog pollution persists despite coronavirus shutdowns. Here’s why.

truck spewing exhaust


Reporting on air pollution during the coronavirus pandemic has generally taken a positive tone — but what about ozone pollution?

As Front Page Live previously reported, carbon emissions are down 17%. That’s a historic drop, and a bright light in the middle of these tough times. But NPR has taken a different tone. Instead of celebrating cleaner air, they’re asking a difficult question: Why aren’t pollution levels down even more?

Rather than looking at carbon, NPR focused on ozone levels. Though most places in the US have seen drops in both, the numbers aren’t as dramatic as you might expect. Across the country, ozone levels are down a median of just 7%.

The report highlights the multidimensional challenge of reducing air pollution. While things like working from home do make a difference, there are many sources of air pollution beyond passenger traffic. Measures to create a cleaner atmosphere, then, can’t just focus on cars.

Trucking troubles ozone pollution results

Ozone pollution results from nitrogen oxide gases (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOC) combining with oxygen. Both NOx and VOC result from burning gas and coal.

In the Greater Los Angeles region, trucks and buses account for almost four times as much NOx emissions as passenger vehicles. And trucks haven’t gotten off the road as quickly as cars: in LA, car traffic is down almost 22%, while the number of trucks has fallen by just 13.3%. Across California as a whole, truck traffic has only lessened by 8%. Notably, LA receives almost a third of all shipping container traffic in the US, so trucks are needed for distributing their goods.

That’s a large part of the reason why ozone levels in LA have only dropped by about 14%. While that’s not an insignificant amount, it isn’t as high as one might expect given all the cars that are off the road.

The hot air is another issue, as heat helps ozone form. Despite the shutdown, the heat and ozone levels recently caused the air quality in Southern California to reach “very unhealthy” levels.

California is trying to make the trucking industry cleaner. They’re currently considering legislation that would require electric vehicles to compose a certain percentage of truck manufacturers’ sales each year. Some manufacturers are already opposing the proposed laws.

Coal complications

The 14% drop in ozone pollution that the LA area saw might not seem like much. But it’s a lot compared to other parts of the country. In Pittsburgh’s Allegheny County, ozone levels were down 9%. And even that is a lot compared to the parts of the Ohio River Valley that saw reductions of just 3%.

The cause? Coal, which is burned in relatively high amounts in both areas.

And coal pollution doesn’t just affect the immediate areas where it’s produced. Emissions from smokestacks travel much farther than emissions from tailpipes, threatening the health of people far away.

Petrochemical problems

Another major emitter of the chemicals that cause ozone pollution is petrochemical plants. Those refineries abound in the Houston area, where ozone has gone down by only 11%. Like LA, the heat in Houston has led to air quality warnings during the pandemic.

Houston also has a soot situation. Levels of soot are down a median of 13% there, compared with 30% in LA. Soot is linked to a multitude of health problems.

Another study has found that levels of some particulates have actually increased in Houston, though those results are not yet peer-reviewed.

The NPR report may seem pessimistic, compared to reports that celebrate falling carbon pollution. But it’s important to examine all sides of a story. The coronavirus crisis is allowing scientists to create more accurate models of how the Earth responds to things like reduced traffic or shuttered factory. That knowledge could help shape greener policies going forward. At this stage in an unprecedented pandemic, it would be premature to label its environmental consequences as uniformly positive or negative.

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