The Upside of the Quarantine

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Issue 15, Volume 110

By Arin Faruque 

Just a few months ago, climate change seemed to be an ever-worsening issue that many believed would usher in the apocalypse—remember the United Nation’s prophecy that warned us that there are just 12 years left for us to fix our mistakes before climate change becomes irreversible? Recent air quality reports reveal just how badly we treated our planet before we were required to follow tight stay-at-home orders in the midst of the pandemic. Since around mid-March, previously congested cities such as New York, Washington D.C., and Boston have seen up to a 30 percent decrease in their air’s nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels, one of the most common air polluters. Pre-quarantine, residents of these cities lived with foggy skies clouded by dirt and other harmful particles. Now, they wake up to visibly clearer, bluer skies.

Cities have been seeing unprecedented improvements in their Air Quality Index (AQI). This index, determined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is determined by the concentration of several air pollutants, including NO2 and PM2.5 (fine particulate matter). Los Angeles, a city known for its hazy smog, is experiencing the cleanest air it has had in 65 years: before stay-at-home orders, Los Angeles's AQI was about 60 (scaling it as “moderate”). Since that time, there has been a 20 percent improvement in air quality (now scaling it as “good”), giving the city its longest streak of “good” air quality since 1995.

India, a country notorious for its high air pollution rates, has also seen a drastic change in its AQI. At this time last year, India’s AQI was measured at 160 (scaling it as “unhealthy”). However, the Central Pollution Control Board of India’s Environment Ministry has reported a 71 percent decrease in NO2 levels since the social distancing orders have been enforced. This change contributes to India’s now improved AQI of 45 (scaling it as “good”). Additionally, NASA reported a 30 percent decrease in NO2 levels in the American Northwest, as well as similar improvements in Wuhan, China.

These promising numbers are a result of decreased human activity. With the quarantine, there are fewer cars on the street, fewer planes in the air, and more factories closing down—all major air polluters. According to the live aircraft flight tracker Flightradar24, there are 40 percent fewer flights worldwide due to travel bans. This is significant, as airplanes are one of the main contributors to air pollution because of the harmful greenhouse gases they emit, including carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide. In turn, due to the lack of flights and cars on the road, oil companies are producing less, thus emitting lower levels of greenhouse gases.

With cleaner air, humans may be less at risk for common health issues such as diabetes or heart disease. Currently, to meet the EPA’s standard, a region must have an AQI under 100. However, EPA clean air researcher Dana Costa reports that there are still “120 million people in the country living in areas that don’t meet today’s clean air standards.” This data is concerning because exposure to air pollution, especially when prolonged, has been proven to increase the risk of metabolic syndromes. A 2013 study conducted by EPA researchers on lab animals of varying ages revealed a possible link between exposure to air pollutants and risk for diseases. After brief exposure to ozone, the animals experienced short-term glucose intolerance and high blood pressure. Furthermore, another study funded by the EPA found that exposure to PM10-2.5, a common air polluter, leads to metabolic changes that are connected to a higher risk of stroke, diabetes, and other metabolic syndromes.

Despite all the improvements that have been made, the question still remains: what will happen when the quarantine is over? While uplifting now, these changes will likely be reversed once stay-at-home orders are lifted and factories, automobiles, and airplanes return to polluting the air. Moving forward, we should keep this occurrence in mind and work to maintain these changes. It’s imperative that the government intervenes to ensure that the few positives coming out of this quarantine are preserved. New legislation restricting factories from using nature as their garbage disposal or remodeling aircraft to be more eco-friendly will be able to sustain these changes. It’s vital that we all help as well. Little things such as choosing not to take the car to a place you can walk to, using public transportation, or choosing not to buy from a brand that’s known to be harmful to the environment (in an effort to lower their demand) will make the difference. Nature has done its part; what the environment will look like post-quarantine, however, depends on us.