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Coronavirus Pandemic Could Have Lasting Impact On The Air We Breathe

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) - Staying home has led to big changes to daily life, but could it have a lasting impact on the air we breathe, or climate change?

CBS2's Vanessa Murdock takes a closer look.

There are fewer cars on the road - buses too. Tail pipe emissions are down. So is electricity usage. That's two big reasons air quality is improving, Murdock reported.

Pictures from NASA show the average concentration in March over the last five years of nitrogen dioxide, a byproduct of burning fossil fuels. The levels dropped by 30% across the northeast in March 2020.


"There is evidence that these lockdowns from the COVID-19 pandemic are reducing the amount of pollution in New York City," said Daniel Westervelt, associate research scientist at Lamont Dougherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University. "How significant they are is still an open question. It's still a little unclear."

Westervelt told Murdock it really depends on the pollutant you look at. In New York City, carbon dioxide (CO2), a primary greenhouse gas known for trapping heat in the atmosphere, is down 10%.

Carbon monoxide (CO) is down 50%, which is significant.

CO is a toxic pollutant in vehicle emissions and at high concentrations can affect the transport of oxygen in your blood.

"PM 2.5 is public enemy number one in terms of health impacts from air pollution," Westervelt said.

PM 2.5 is microscopic particulate matter spewed from smokestacks, fires or created by complex chemical reactions in the air. About 100,000 Americans die prematurely each year from breathing in PM 2.5, and in March 2020 it was down 30%. Not significant, says Westervelt.

"Between 2015 and 2020, we have had a steady decline in PM 2.5 over New York City anyway," Westervelt said.

He believes cleaner air is temporary, but it's possible that lessons learned - like work from home - could have minor long-term effects on the air we breathe.

CORONAVIRUS: NY Health Dept. | NY Call 1-(888)-364-3065 | NYC Health Dept. | NYC Call 311, Text COVID to 692692 | NJ COVID-19 Info Hub | NJ Call 1-(800)-222-1222 or 211, Text NJCOVID to 898211 | CT Health Dept. | CT Call 211 | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Will COVID-19 stay-home orders affect climate change? Murdock asked the co-director of Rutgers Climate Institute, Anthony Broccoli.

PHOTO GALLERY: A Look Inside NYC's Viral 'Warzone'

"I think one of the important take-home messages is that the production of greenhouse gases is a byproduct of things that we do," Broccoli said. "Heating our homes, transportation, manufacturing... I think it's an opportunity for us to think about what would be involved in solving the problem of climate change."

The long-term effects of climate change and air pollution both impact our health.

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