Story at a glance
- Since the coronavirus pandemic began, car travel has been down across America.
- A new analysis suggests that the resulting drop in pollution, however, is less than expected.
- As states begin to open up and economic activity restarts, pollution is likely to grow again.
Desperate for a silver lining during the coronavirus pandemic, Americans were encouraged to see the drop in pollution after states began issuing stay at home orders. But a new analysis suggests pollution hasn't fallen by as much as perhaps expected.
While car traffic has dropped by about 40 percent, ozone pollution hasn't dropped by more than 22 percent anywhere in the United States, according to an NPR analysis of data from the Environmental Protection Agency. On average, ozone pollution has decreased by 15 percent or less in most parts of the country.
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Ozone is a highly reactive gas composed of three oxygen atoms that occurs naturally in the highest regions of the earth's atmosphere. But when inhaled by humans and other living beings, it can damage their lungs and result in other health conditions.
Parts of California have seen some of the greatest decreases in ozone levels, according to the analysis, with 14 percent less ozone in Los Angeles. In Houston, ozone levels are 11.9 less than they have been over the last five years and Pittsburgh has seen an 8.9 percent decrease. Some areas recorded increases in ozone levels of up to 13 percent, but less than 1 percent of the U.S. population lives in an area that saw an increase in ozone levels.
But while car traffic is down, trucks, coal-fired power plants and petrochemical facilities have continued on, all of which contribute to ozone pollution. Globally, daily carbon emissions dropped 17 percent compared to last year, according to a recent study, but even that is temporary. And as states and countries reopen their economies, pollution is bound to return unless more permanent measures are adopted.
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