Saint Louis, MO

Do Lockdowns Affect Air Quality? Professor at Washington University in St. Louis weighs in

Steve Chao

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SAINT LOUIS, MO — According to the data published on June 23 in the journal Science Advances, the natural variability of meteorology caused the majority of changes instead of the lockdowns.

Media coverage regarding reduced pollution during lockdowns refers to nitrogen dioxide, NO2, which comes from burning fuel. Meanwhile, there is a limited understanding of how lockdowns affect tiny particulate matter PM 2.5, which can cause health problems, including increased risk for heart attack and cancer.

Randall Martin, a Professor in the McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, said that PM 2.5 is the key pollutant which causes health concern. Martin’s lab collaboration with the Goddard Space Flight Center, California Institute of Technology and Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia resulted in new PM 2.5 levels data across China, Europe, and North America.

The team ran “sensitivity simulations” to figure out whether lockdown was responsible. They carried out a simulation, where they reduced the pollution to mimic the situation during the lockdowns. “It was kind of a surprise that meteorology played such a dominant role," Melanie Hammer, a visiting research associate in Martin’s lab, said.

Their findings also highlight the complexity between NO2 and PM 2.5 relationship. While the interaction between NO2 with other atmospheric chemicals emits PM 2.5, it does not always work linearly. It means, twice the amount of NO2 in the atmosphere does not double PM 2.5 amount.

“Turns out, it’s a pretty complex relationship and it doesn’t always behave how you would expect," Hammer added.

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