Are COVID-19 Stay-at-Home Regulations Responsible for NJ’s Cleaner Air?

Two dangerous pollutants are clocking in 20% to 30% lower than a year ago, but experts say it’s too early to make a direct link between lower numbers and rules keeping folks off the road
Credit: Famartin via Creative Commons CC-BY-SA-4
What stay-at-home looks like on the New Jersey Turnpike

The air seems to be getting a lot healthier in New Jersey over the past month, but the larger question is for how long.

Emissions of nitrogen oxides and fine particulate matter are between 20% and 30% lower than the same period last year, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection, a significant drop in pollution levels for the two pollutants that cause much of the health problems associated with unhealthy air quality.

But Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the DEP, noted there is insufficient data at this time to correlate this reduction with measures in place aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19, the disease associated with the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

Stay at home, pollute less?

With stay-at-home orders in effect throughout New Jersey and surrounding states, it is clear to some that the directives of various governors have slowed economic activity and other pollution from the transportation sector, the single biggest source of some of the pollutants responsible for bad air quality.

“It’s a little bit early to tie a direct link,’’ said Heather Payne, an associate professor of law at Seton Hall University, but she cited two likely factors — the state’s reliance on carbon-free sources of electricity generation and a drop in the emissions in the transportation sector.

If people are staying at home and not driving to work and not driving to stores, there are a lot less emissions from the transportation sector, Payne said.

“It’s a bit of the road not taken — literally,’’ agreed Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, an organization in the forefront of pushing for cleaner-running vehicles. “Obviously, there are less cars and trucks on the road.’’

A reduction in nitrogen oxides, a pollutant that contributes to formation of ground-level ozone, is welcome news for many residents, particularly the young and elderly who suffer from asthma from exposure to smog. New Jersey has never met the federal air-quality standard for ground-level ozone.

Fine particulate matter is a pollutant emitted from factories and diesel emissions from vehicles. The federal Environmental Protection Agency estimates it causes tens of thousands of premature deaths a year across the nation.

A welcome reduction

The drop in the two pollutants was welcomed by Michael Egenton, executive vice president of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce and a member of the New Jersey Clean Air Council. “We are doing a good job in New Jersey, but it eventually has to be a regional and national approach. And we have to tackle mobile sources,’’ he said.

Others were more pessimistic. “The drop will help some people with existing health issues, but it probably is only temporary,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “It helps people with respiratory illnesses at a time when people are concerned about their health.’’

Payne concurred the improvements in air quality may only be temporary — unless the state adopts more structural changes to its energy use, such as promoting renewable energy and carbon-free ways of producing electricity and electrifying the transportation sector.

“It does give use a glimpse of what our future will look like if we didn’t have as much pollution from cars and trucks,’’ O’Malley said.