MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — The toll of COVID-19 on the economy and society is still developing. However, the downturn it’s created in another area is being celebrated. The amount of air pollution in cities worldwide has dropped significantly.

It’s something we’re seeing in Minnesota, too.

“It originally started in China … they noticed with emissions of nitrogen dioxide that levels were significantly lower than the year before,” the American Lung Association’s senior director for clean air Jon Hunter said.

As painful and unsettling as the last few months have been, the unintended (unexpected, even) consequence of less industry and fewer trips by car is a little victory worth noting.

“Based on the satellite imagery we do see those decreases in nitrogen dioxide pollutants across the state of Minnesota; the bulls-eye over the Twin Cities is a little bit more diffuse. … Yesterday, with the sunny skies, there was a little bit less haze than you normally would see,” MPCA meteorologist Daniel Dix said. “You are seeing similar situations in Italy; they had a drop across northern Italy, quite dramatically.”

Clearer skies are a nice thing to look at, but cleaner air leads to longer lives. The long-term link between breathing pollution and health problems — even premature death — was established long ago.

“COVID, since it is a respiratory (disease), the better health your lungs are in as you get an infection, the more ability your body has to help fight it,” Hunter said.

Hunter maintains that cleaning our air doesn’t have to be painful. When asked to respond to respond to anyone saying, “See? All of these solutions to make the air cleaner require turning our entire worldwide economy off,” Hunter said the following.

“Fortunately we are beyond the point where we have to choose between a good economy and a clean environment. Nowadays, cleaner energy sources like wind and solar power are less expensive than traditional fossil-fuel power sources,” Hunter said.

While emissions will go back up when life returns to normal — and may even spike for a time, like after the 2008 financial crisis — there’s hope that a few months with cleaner air and clearer skies may entice us all to aim for a new normal.

Wildfire smoke also has a big impact on air quality, and wildfire season starts in June. Large wildfires — like the ones that burned across Canada the last two summers — can dirty our air quickly.

Mike Augustyniak

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