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Central Ohio Air Quality Suffers As More People Emerge From Pandemic

highway in Columbus

After a year of improved air quality due at least in part to fewer cars and trucks on Central Ohio roads, the region is once again seeing air pollution tick back up as people emerge from pandemic-related restrictions.

While the exceptionally rainy spring of 2020 also helped improve air quality, less congested freeways helped as well, said Brooke White, a senior air quality and sustainability specialist for the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission.

“We really did see a statistically significant reduction in a particular pollutant called ozone, and that’s the pollutant that we tend to see a lot of air quality alerts for in our region,” White said.

The majority of ozone pollution comes from vehicle exhaust.

MORPC’s annual report from 2020 reports “Ozone monthly average concentrations in 2020 were lower than the 2015 – 2019 averages, with statistical significance, for the months of March, April, and May,” when Ohio and other states had their heaviest coronavirus-related restrictions, including stay-at-home orders and business closures.

Last month, as Ohio and local governments lifted more pandemic-related orders, pollution ticked up. May 2020 had just two days where the air quality fell from “good” to moderate, while May 2021 had eight days of “moderate” air pollution.

Better air in 2020 was a trend playing out around much of the globe. The 2020 World Air Quality Report from the air monitoring organization IQAir found most major cities saw reductions in fine particles that pollute the air. In the U.S., though, the report concludes “average air pollution exposure levels…were higher in 2020 than in 2018 and 2019.” Much of that increase was due to a bad wildfire season.

Overall, air pollution in Central Ohio and around the U.S. is much lower than earlier decades, largely because of stricter vehicle and industrial emission standards.

When it comes to the pandemic, Brooke White from MORPC said there are lessons to be learned from months of reduced traffic.

“A lot of those improvement that we saw really spoke to the need to start thinking a lot more about how we’re moving around our city and about how we’re driving to work,” White said. “I think keeping flexible work places where we’re not requiring folks to come in every day, where we’re decreasing the number of commuters on the roadways, could really have a benefit for our region.”