Chicago air quality shows no striking difference amid shelter-in-place order


Illustration by Catherine Buchaniec

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Lockdown restrictions around the world have brought about unprecedented reductions of air pollution and changes to the environment, but Chicago has yet to see any dramatic changes. Despite a consistency in air pollution levels, climate proponents have highlighted connections between the current pandemic and the impending climate crisis.

Mark Potosnak, the chair of the Environmental Science and Studies Department at DePaul University, recently helped collect local air pollution data. Potosnak said that unlike other major cities, local data has only seen smaller trends.

“We don’t see striking differences in air quality,” Potosnak said. “I’m pretty sure it is cleaner, but we just don’t see it as much in the data because this isn’t a time of year where it’s practically dirty.”

Typically, air pollution levels intensify over the summer months, Potosnak explained. Since Chicago generally has better air quality than cities in China and India, he said the benefits are less noticeable.

If Chicago continues to see the same level of shutdown during the summer months, Potosnak anticipates a notable difference in air quality. The decrease in cars and trucks on the road will result in few pollutants entering the air, he explained.

Sasha Adkins, a lecturer in public health and environmental studies at Loyola University Chicago, also pointed toward recent environmental policy changes as a possible contributing factor to the stagnation of Chicago’s air pollution levels.

“President Trump suspended enforcement of some environmental regulations, which is offsetting the reduction in traffic and air travel,” Adkins said. “We’re in a different situation here in the U.S.”

In the pandemic, air quality could play an important role in protecting people’s health. Recent reports have shown air pollution negatively impacts patients infected with COVID-19.

Illustration by Catherine Buchaniec
Air quality may play an important role in the coronavirus pandemic — those in areas with poor air quality are more susceptible to respiratory issues.

SESP junior Georgia Caras said the pandemic has highlighted inequities around access to environmental resources, such as clean air and industrial opportunities. According to Caras, a member of the environmental advocacy organization Sunrise Movement, these inequities disproportionately affect black and brown people.

“Our society is founded upon so many system inequalities, and the way that it is organized is that if you experience those inequalities, you don’t see them,” Caras said.

Caras also made connections between the pandemic and the impending climate crisis, saying that the pandemic makes the case for the Green New Deal, which she believes would alleviate some inequalities. She said she wishes people took the climate crisis as seriously as they’re taking COVID-19.

Aaron Durnbaugh, the director of sustainability at Loyola University Chicago, echoed similar concerns. Durnbaugh said the current situation has rapidly changed parts of everyday life, such as commuting and the transportation industry, which could indicate possible future solutions.

“In a way, this pandemic gives people a glimpse at what more sustainable behavior might look like,” Durnbaugh said.

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