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Pandemic positive: Wasatch Front treated to great air quality

Air quality experts are calling the coronavirus pandemic a "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunity to study the impact of less cars on the road. So far, they say the positive influence is staggering. (Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — Apparently the coronavirus pandemic isn’t all bad. State officials are saying decreased traffic due to the outbreak is resulting in better air quality for the Wasatch Front. 

In a press release on Tuesday, science experts stated air quality in Salt Lake is normally good during the spring season, “but the reduction in emissions from COVID-19 social distancing measures have made air quality even better than usual.”

One of the reasons for the drop in smog is due to the lack of cars on the road. 

Once-in-a-lifetime opportunity

Experts at the Air Quality Division within the Utah Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) call this a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity. With much fewer cars on the road, they are able to study what (if any) impact it’s having on air quality. So far, they say the results are eye-opening.

Maybe not surprisingly, the data has been overwhelmingly positive. First, the shutdown of schools and businesses is helping to reduce the volume of PM 2.5. Those are fine particulate matter that can present a concern to people’s health when levels are too high.

A study from late March finds those levels are down nearly 60%. Additionally, the percentage only increases when taken from overnight hours.

Their research started on March 15, when physical distance measures were enforced throughout the state. Within the last half of March, Utah’s levels of nitric oxide, particulate matter, and carbon dioxide reduced significantly. 

Less traffic is resulting in a reduced presence of oxides of nitrogen. Carbon dioxide levels are 19% and 33% lower than average at the heavily-trafficked Sugar House and University of Utah stations, respectively.

“These measurements, taken together, paint a consistent picture of cleaner air from reduced emissions, especially from reduced traffic,” said Logan Mitchell, research assistant professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Utah, to the Deseret News.

Mitchell is one of the individuals who is helping conduct the analysis.

“It shows how fast the air quality improves after a reduction in emissions,” he said.

Better air quality: Here to stay?

While the data is overwhelmingly positive, it’s impossible to ignore that many driving habits will inevitably revert to normal.

As the economy starts to recover and emissions ramp up, we’re going to see our air quality get worse again,” – Mitchell said.

According to Mitchell, their study isn’t a final product yet. Experts need to complete more analysis, including a review of weather conditions. That will help give a more complete picture of the emissions from March 2020 compared to previous years.

The research team plans to continue monitoring the pandemic’s impact on pollution levels in the Salt Lake Valley. It’s a chance scientists refuse to pass up. 

“We are looking forward to further analyzing the data our monitors collected during this period when residents were teleworking and driving less. Dr. Mitchell’s initial analysis shows a lot of promise and, hopefully, the final results will help inform behavior and policy in the coming years,” said Bryce Bird, Director of the Division of Air Quality. 

For the full report, click here
Find current air quality conditions from the Utah DEQ here and measurements from stationary and mobile air quality monitors through the University of Utah here.