Social Distancing Is Likely To Clear Up D.C.'s Air Quality — At Least For Now Other areas across the world have seen cleaner water and air as the coronavirus pandemic has forced people to stay home.
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Social Distancing Is Likely To Clear Up D.C.'s Air Quality — At Least For Now

The decrease in traffic will lead to better air quality, but D.C. likely won't see much cleaner water as a result of the coronavirus. Chesapeake Bay Program/Flickr hide caption

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Chesapeake Bay Program/Flickr

As D.C. residents have hunkered down in their homes in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, daily life as most locals know it has come to a halt.

This is true all over the world: businesses are shuttered, fewer cars are on the road, and group events of all kinds have been postponed or canceled. The human toll of the pandemic is spiking hourly, and economic collapse is touching more and more workers every day.

Meanwhile, it appears that social distancing mandates have been an incidental boon to the environment. Global carbon emissions amid the coronavirus crisis are down. The smog normally smothering large urban areas like New York and Los Angeles has cleared up. Venice canals are clean enough to see fish swimming. The air pollution in China lessened so substantially we could see the difference from space.

In D.C., it's still too soon to know the true environmental impact of the crisis. But experts say that, at least in the short term, it's likely to clear up air pollution in the city.

Sabrina McCormick, an associate professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University, says the decrease in traffic as more people work from home will lead to fewer emissions and cleaner air.

"Transportation in the United States is approximately 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and with that, the related air quality," she says. "And so, because we have this massive drop in transportation locally and, really, globally, we're seeing changes and air quality improvement."

In the short term, McCormick says she expects to see a decrease in heart attacks, asthma rates, and other health problems made worse by poor air quality—notably, these conditions also worsen the impact of COVID-19.

It's less clear if there will be a decrease in local water pollution as a result of the coronavirus.

Phillip Musegaas, the vice president of programs and litigation at Potomac Riverkeeper Network doesn't think it's likely the District would see a drastic improvement in water quality related to coronavirus. That's because D.C. has a combined sewer system, which discharges untreated waste into area rivers like the Potomac after heavy rainfall. (That's something the ongoing Clean Rivers Project is working to fix—the first tunnel constructed as part of the project prevented 90 percent of sewage overflows into the Anacostia River, and two more tunnels are underway. In the meantime, more than 600 million gallons of sewage overflow into the Potomac each year.)

"Whether people are at home or at the office, they're going to continue to use the bathroom and it's going to continue to rain," says Musegaas.

Recent data on changes in D.C.'s air and water quality since the shutdown began was not immediately available, and the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment did not provide a comment for this story.

But there are already indications that some positive environmental effects could be short-lived. On Thursday, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it would dramatically loosen environmental regulations for factories, power plants, and other facilities due to the coronavirus.

Following a slew of inquiries from companies facing staffing shortages, the EPA declared that companies will be allowed to monitor themselves, and determine whether or not they can meet requirements for reporting on pollution.

The change will remain in place indefinitely, and the agency will not fine companies for failing to meet particular air, water, and hazardous-waste reporting requirements. Musegaas says that, while the change may be justified in some cases due to staffing shortages and other issues, it sends a dangerous message.

"It's essentially just inviting companies to pollute and to relax their own operational standards and know that they're going to get away with it," he says.

Experts are still learning more about the coronavirus's impact on the environment, McCormick says. While cars will eventually get back on the road and much of daily life will resume, she thinks this could be a catalyst for long-term environmental change.

"Most people who I talk to and I agree that there is our pre-COVID life and our post-COVID life, and we are not going to return to a normal that we knew before," she says.

As people are forced to temporarily change their routines and lessen their carbon footprints as a result, some new habits could end up sticking. "We may actually see some more permanent incorporation of [new] behaviors into our daily life," says McCormick. "That does really affect air quality."

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