Air pollution in New York City falls rapidly as people stay home

Air pollution and carbon monoxide levels in New York fall rapidly as people stay at home and traffic is reduced by over a third amid coronavirus crisis

  • Traffic levels in New York have fallen by a third since the outbreak of coronavirus
  • This has had a dramatic impact on the level of harmful emissions found in the air
  • Researchers say carbon monoxide levels from car emissions fell by 50 per cent 
  • Carbon dioxide levels fell by up to 10 per cent and methane is down dramatically
  • Researchers say once countries return to normal air quality will get worse again 
  • Coronavirus symptoms: what are they and should you see a doctor?

Air pollution in New York has rapidly fallen as people stay home and avoid driving in the city due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Researchers from Colombia University found that the level of carbon monoxide, produced from vehicle emissions, had fallen by nearly 50 per cent. 

It comes as traffic numbers on the streets of New York City drop by 35 per cent due to people going into isolation and venues closing to slow the spread of the virus.  

Levels of carbon dioxide have dropped by up to 10 per cent and methane have also fallen ‘significantly’, according to the Colombia team.   

It’s unlikely these lower pollution levels will last – scientists warn that once economic activity ramps up again the pollution levels will return to ‘normal’. 

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A view of the St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue from Monday as the coronavirus continues to spread across the United States. The city has emptied of people after calls to remain home

Just under a year ago New York city was covered in a haze. According to the American Lung Association the New York metro area had the 10th worst air quality in the nation in terms of elevated levels of lung-damaging ozone pollution between 2015-2017

People are working from home which is reducing demand for public transport and cutting the number of vehicles on the road, say researchers. 

According to TomTom, congestion levels in New York on Monday were at 17 per cent – the same time last year congestion was at 52 per cent.

‘What it means is people are not going out,’ David King, an expert in transportation at Arizona State University told Crain’s. 

‘They’re not going to work, and you’re seeing broadband demand drop off.’ 

‘It tells me people are staying away, and they’re doing it rapidly,’ King said. ‘I expect the numbers will become more pronounced.’  

Professor Róisín Commane from the Columbia University team who compiled the New York air pollution statistics say fewer commuters and a general economic slowdown will have an impact on global emissions. 

‘I expect we will have the smallest increase in May to May peak CO2 that we’ve had in the northern hemisphere since 2009, or even before,’ she told told the BBC.

Professor Corinne Le Quéré from the University of East Anglia agrees, telling the BBC that the shutdown will likely impact CO2 levels for the whole year.  

‘It will depend on how long the pandemic lasts, and how widespread the slowdown is in the economy particularly in the US. But most likely I think we will see something in the global emissions this year,’ Quéré said.

‘If it lasts another three of four months, certainly we could see some reduction.’

Once economies begin to recover from the crisis and people come out of isolation countries are expected to not just ramp up production to pre-virus levels, but potentially increase the industrial activity. 

‘When the Chinese economy does recover, they are likely to see an increase in emissions in the short term to sort of make up for lost time, in terms of production,’ climate scientist Zeke Hausfather told Wired.

‘Broadly speaking, the only real times we’ve seen large emission reductions globally in the past few decades is during major recessions,’ says Hausfather. 

‘But even then, the effects are often smaller than you think. It generally doesn’t lead to any sort of systematic change.’ 

Air quality researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Fei Liu said: ‘This is the first time I have seen such a dramatic drop-off over such a wide area for a specific event.’ 

‘Governments now have to be really cautious on how they re-stimulate their economies, mindful of not locking in fossil fuels again,’ said Le Quéré.

‘They should focus those things that are ready to go that would lower emissions, like renovating buildings, putting in heat pumps and electric chargers. 

‘These are not complicated and can be done straight away, they are just waiting for financial incentives.’

Satellite images from the European Space Agency and NASA show a dramatic reduction in the amount of harmful greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere.  

Limiting travel has led to a reduction in vehicle emissions and cutting the amount of industrial activity has led to a drop in the number of harmful particles put in the air.  

Satellite observations indicated steep falls in nitrogen dioxide emissions in the wake of strict lockdowns in Italy and China, the two worst affected countries so far  

Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air in Helsinki, Finland said nitrogen dioxide levels were down by 35 per cent over China during the shutdown compared to the same period in 2019. 

‘Most factories have been closed or running at low capacity, either because of restrictions on operation or because employees haven’t been able to return from holidays, or because of lack of demand,’ Myllyvirta told Business Insider.

‘If the government holds onto the GDP growth target for the year, that could mean launching a massive construction program to prop up GDP,’ he said. ‘This is what happened after the global financial crisis in 2009.’ 

Sascha Marschang, the acting secretary general of the European Public Health Alliance, told the Guardian big decisions were needed after the crisis ends.

‘Policymakers should speed up measures to get dirty vehicles off our roads.

‘Science tells us that epidemics like Covid-19 will occur with increasing frequency. So cleaning up the streets is a basic investment for a healthier future.’ 

Professor Glen Peters from the Centre for International Climate Research said any stimulus would likely be used to support the economy, rather than green energy.  

‘Any stimulus will help those with job losses such as tourism and services. I think this is very different to the global financial crisis’, he told the BBC. 

‘The only silver linings could be to learning new practices to work remotely, and buying a few years of lower growth allowing solar and wind to catch up a bit, though, these may be rather small silver linings.’ 

These NASA maps shows the concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) over China between 01 January 2020 (left) and 25 February 2020 (right)

There has also been a drop in pollution from the aviation industry as flights are cancelled and planes grounded around the world.

‘Based economic growth forecasts the impact of the coronavirus could significantly reduce global CO2 emissions,’ said Professor Ian Colbeck, of the University of Essex.

‘Figures from China suggest a 25 per cent reduction in energy use and emissions. 

‘Air travel emissions are a significant contributor to climate change so expect this figure to drop as more and more flights are cancelled.’ 

Dramatic footage from the ESA Copernicus satellite shared on Friday showed a ‘notable drop’ in air pollution over Italy after the coronavirus lockdown. 

ESA’s Claus Zehner, Sentinel-5P mission manager, said, ‘The decline in nitrogen dioxide emissions over the Po Valley in northern Italy is particularly evident.

WHAT ARE THE HARMFUL EMISSIONS?

Carbon Dioxide 

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is one of the biggest contributors to global warming. After the gas is released into the atmosphere it stays there, making it difficult for heat to escape – and warming up the planet in the process. 

It is primarily released from burning fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas, as well as cement production. 

The average monthly concentration of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere, as of April 2019, is 413 parts per million (ppm). Before the Industrial Revolution, the concentration was just 280 ppm. 

CO2 concentration has fluctuated over the last 800,000 years between 180 to 280ppm, but has been vastly accelerated by pollution caused by humans.  

Nitrogen dioxide 

The gas nitrogen dioxide (NO2) comes from burning fossil fuels, car exhaust emissions and the use of nitrogen-based fertilisers used in agriculture.

Although there is far less NO2 in the atmosphere than CO2, it is between 200 and 300 times more effective at trapping heat.

Sulfur dioxide 

Sulfur dioxide (SO2) also primarily comes from fossil fuel burning, but can also be released from car exhausts.

SO2 can react with water, oxygen and other chemicals in the atmosphere to cause acid rain. 

Carbon monoxide 

Carbon monoxide (CO) is an indirect greenhouse gas as it reacts with hydroxyl radicals, removing them. Hydroxyl radicals reduce the lifetime of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. 

‘Although there could be slight variations in the data due to cloud cover and changing weather, we are very confident that the reduction in emissions that we can see, coincides with the lockdown in Italy causing less traffic and industrial activities.’

This came after the country closed bars, pubs, restaurants and other venues in a bid to stop people spreading the virus – resulting in a reduction in traffic, air and industrial pollution.   

The UK also saw a drop in air pollution levels, although it is too soon into the isolation process to get exact figures for the whole country, according to experts. 

Readings for nitrogen dioxide – a harmful greenhouse gas – across London were lower on Sunday than on Monday for the first time.

The Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs reported that air pollution levels were ‘low’ across the country today and don’t expect that to change. 

On Monday Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged people to stay home and avoid all but essential travel and contact with other people.

According to EU air quality monitoring website AirQualityNow.eu – London saw a drop from 96 on Sunday to just 20 on Monday. The figure for Monday would normally be higher than the weekend rate.  

The Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS) observed a decrease of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) for February relative to the previous three years of between 20 and 30 per cent, Copernicus said in a statement.

PM2.5 is one of the most important air pollutants regarding health impacts according to the World Health Organization.   

Nitrogen dioxide is a noxious gas which is released during fuel combustion and emitted by cars, power plants and industrial facilities. 

It forms when fossil fuels such as coal, gas or diesel are burned at high temperatures and can cause a range of harmful effects on the lungs including increased inflammation of the airways and a greater risk of asthma attacks.   

At an individual level the amount of road traffic could reduce significantly, with companies allowing staff to continue to work from home after the crisis. 


A tale of two cities – In November 2018 Beijing was surrounded by a haze that obscured buildings due to high levels of toxic particulates in the air. In March 2016 skies are clearer 

‘It’s quite possible that once things revert back to pre-virus conditions that companies and their staff may have seen the benefits of working from home and so the actual number of commuters may reduce,’ said Professor Colbeck.     

Cutting pollution levels longer term will also help reduce the number of deaths in any future pandemic, according to Sara De Matteis from Cagliari University, Italy. 

‘Patients with chronic lung and heart conditions caused or worsened by long-term exposure to air pollution are less able to fight off lung infections and more likely to die. This is likely also the case for Covid-19,’ she told the Guardian. 

‘By lowering air pollution levels we can help the most vulnerable in their fight against this and any possible future pandemics.’ 

The biggest barrier to long term change will be the rapidly dropping price of oil, according to the International Energy Agency.

The agency had already predicted oil use would drop in 2020, and this was before an oil price war emerged between Saudi Arabia and Russia.    

WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE CORONAVIRUS?

What is the coronavirus? 

A coronavirus is a type of virus which can cause illness in animals and people. Viruses break into cells inside their host and use them to reproduce itself and disrupt the body’s normal functions. Coronaviruses are named after the Latin word ‘corona’, which means crown, because they are encased by a spiked shell which resembles a royal crown.

The coronavirus from Wuhan is one which has never been seen before this outbreak. It has been named SARS-CoV-2 by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses. The name stands for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2.

Experts say the bug, which has killed around one in 50 patients since the outbreak began in December, is a ‘sister’ of the SARS illness which hit China in 2002, so has been named after it.

The disease that the virus causes has been named COVID-19, which stands for coronavirus disease 2019.

Dr Helena Maier, from the Pirbright Institute, said: ‘Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that infect a wide range of different species including humans, cattle, pigs, chickens, dogs, cats and wild animals. 

‘Until this new coronavirus was identified, there were only six different coronaviruses known to infect humans. Four of these cause a mild common cold-type illness, but since 2002 there has been the emergence of two new coronaviruses that can infect humans and result in more severe disease (Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronaviruses). 

‘Coronaviruses are known to be able to occasionally jump from one species to another and that is what happened in the case of SARS, MERS and the new coronavirus. The animal origin of the new coronavirus is not yet known.’ 

The first human cases were publicly reported from the Chinese city of Wuhan, where approximately 11million people live, after medics first started publicly reporting infections on December 31.

By January 8, 59 suspected cases had been reported and seven people were in critical condition. Tests were developed for the new virus and recorded cases started to surge.

The first person died that week and, by January 16, two were dead and 41 cases were confirmed. The next day, scientists predicted that 1,700 people had become infected, possibly up to 7,000. 

Where does the virus come from?

According to scientists, the virus almost certainly came from bats. Coronaviruses in general tend to originate in animals – the similar SARS and MERS viruses are believed to have originated in civet cats and camels, respectively.

The first cases of COVID-19 came from people visiting or working in a live animal market in Wuhan, which has since been closed down for investigation.

Although the market is officially a seafood market, other dead and living animals were being sold there, including wolf cubs, salamanders, snakes, peacocks, porcupines and camel meat. 

A study by the Wuhan Institute of Virology, published in February 2020 in the scientific journal Nature, found that the genetic make-up virus samples found in patients in China is 96 per cent identical to a coronavirus they found in bats.

However, there were not many bats at the market so scientists say it was likely there was an animal which acted as a middle-man, contracting it from a bat before then transmitting it to a human. It has not yet been confirmed what type of animal this was.

Dr Michael Skinner, a virologist at Imperial College London, was not involved with the research but said: ‘The discovery definitely places the origin of nCoV in bats in China.

‘We still do not know whether another species served as an intermediate host to amplify the virus, and possibly even to bring it to the market, nor what species that host might have been.’  

So far the fatalities are quite low. Why are health experts so worried about it? 

Experts say the international community is concerned about the virus because so little is known about it and it appears to be spreading quickly.

It is similar to SARS, which infected 8,000 people and killed nearly 800 in an outbreak in Asia in 2003, in that it is a type of coronavirus which infects humans’ lungs. It is less deadly than SARS, however, which killed around one in 10 people, compared to approximately one in 50 for COVID-19.

Another reason for concern is that nobody has any immunity to the virus because they’ve never encountered it before. This means it may be able to cause more damage than viruses we come across often, like the flu or common cold.

Speaking at a briefing in January, Oxford University professor, Dr Peter Horby, said: ‘Novel viruses can spread much faster through the population than viruses which circulate all the time because we have no immunity to them.

‘Most seasonal flu viruses have a case fatality rate of less than one in 1,000 people. Here we’re talking about a virus where we don’t understand fully the severity spectrum but it’s possible the case fatality rate could be as high as two per cent.’

If the death rate is truly two per cent, that means two out of every 100 patients who get it will die. 

‘My feeling is it’s lower,’ Dr Horby added. ‘We’re probably missing this iceberg of milder cases. But that’s the current circumstance we’re in.

‘Two per cent case fatality rate is comparable to the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918 so it is a significant concern globally.’

How does the virus spread?

The illness can spread between people just through coughs and sneezes, making it an extremely contagious infection. And it may also spread even before someone has symptoms.

It is believed to travel in the saliva and even through water in the eyes, therefore close contact, kissing, and sharing cutlery or utensils are all risky. It can also live on surfaces, such as plastic and steel, for up to 72 hours, meaning people can catch it by touching contaminated surfaces.

Originally, people were thought to be catching it from a live animal market in Wuhan city. But cases soon began to emerge in people who had never been there, which forced medics to realise it was spreading from person to person. 

What does the virus do to you? What are the symptoms?

Once someone has caught the COVID-19 virus it may take between two and 14 days, or even longer, for them to show any symptoms – but they may still be contagious during this time.

If and when they do become ill, typical signs include a runny nose, a cough, sore throat and a fever (high temperature). The vast majority of patients will recover from these without any issues, and many will need no medical help at all.

In a small group of patients, who seem mainly to be the elderly or those with long-term illnesses, it can lead to pneumonia. Pneumonia is an infection in which the insides of the lungs swell up and fill with fluid. It makes it increasingly difficult to breathe and, if left untreated, can be fatal and suffocate people.

Figures are showing that young children do not seem to be particularly badly affected by the virus, which they say is peculiar considering their susceptibility to flu, but it is not clear why. 

What have genetic tests revealed about the virus? 

Scientists in China have recorded the genetic sequences of around 19 strains of the virus and released them to experts working around the world. 

This allows others to study them, develop tests and potentially look into treating the illness they cause.   

Examinations have revealed the coronavirus did not change much – changing is known as mutating – much during the early stages of its spread.

However, the director-general of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Gao Fu, said the virus was mutating and adapting as it spread through people.

This means efforts to study the virus and to potentially control it may be made extra difficult because the virus might look different every time scientists analyse it.   

More study may be able to reveal whether the virus first infected a small number of people then change and spread from them, or whether there were various versions of the virus coming from animals which have developed separately.

How dangerous is the virus?  

The virus has a death rate of around two per cent. This is a similar death rate to the Spanish Flu outbreak which, in 1918, went on to kill around 50million people.

Experts have been conflicted since the beginning of the outbreak about whether the true number of people who are infected is significantly higher than the official numbers of recorded cases. Some people are expected to have such mild symptoms that they never even realise they are ill unless they’re tested, so only the more serious cases get discovered, making the death toll seem higher than it really is.

However, an investigation into government surveillance in China said it had found no reason to believe this was true.

Dr Bruce Aylward, a World Health Organization official who went on a mission to China, said there was no evidence that figures were only showing the tip of the iceberg, and said recording appeared to be accurate, Stat News reported.

Can the virus be cured? 

The COVID-19 virus cannot be cured and it is proving difficult to contain.

Antibiotics do not work against viruses, so they are out of the question. Antiviral drugs can work, but the process of understanding a virus then developing and producing drugs to treat it would take years and huge amounts of money.

No vaccine exists for the coronavirus yet and it’s not likely one will be developed in time to be of any use in this outbreak, for similar reasons to the above.

The National Institutes of Health in the US, and Baylor University in Waco, Texas, say they are working on a vaccine based on what they know about coronaviruses in general, using information from the SARS outbreak. But this may take a year or more to develop, according to Pharmaceutical Technology.

Currently, governments and health authorities are working to contain the virus and to care for patients who are sick and stop them infecting other people.

People who catch the illness are being quarantined in hospitals, where their symptoms can be treated and they will be away from the uninfected public.

And airports around the world are putting in place screening measures such as having doctors on-site, taking people’s temperatures to check for fevers and using thermal screening to spot those who might be ill (infection causes a raised temperature).

However, it can take weeks for symptoms to appear, so there is only a small likelihood that patients will be spotted up in an airport.

Is this outbreak an epidemic or a pandemic?   

The outbreak was declared a pandemic on March 11. A pandemic is defined by the World Health Organization as the ‘worldwide spread of a new disease’. 

Previously, the UN agency said most cases outside of Hubei had been ‘spillover’ from the epicentre, so the disease wasn’t actually spreading actively around the world.

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