Puerto Ricans are Literally Breathing Easier Due to COVID-19 Shutdown

Air Quality Puerto Rico

Image via ACAR Laboratory

By Cristy Marrero

April 20, 2020

Reduction of mobility has a flip side: Lower carbon emissions are improving air quality.

San Juan —Researcher Olga Mayol has seen the environmental impact of the stay-at-home measures around the world —the Venice’s Canals with crystal clear waters and a visible Himalayan mountain range— and they back up her own research.

“We have seen how pollution has decreased, because we produce it. What are we going to do? Are we going to work on environmental policies that help us improve fuel efficiency?” she asked curiously.

As a professor of Environmental Science at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayol led a study, in conjunction with the Atmospherics Chemistry Aerosols and Research (ACAR), that showed a 12% increase in the quality of air in the island.

“We have seen the decrease of carbon monoxide is clearly associated with the beginning of the first period of the lockdown. Then for the second it seems that people were a little less scared, and they started going out more and saw a slight increase. We did the measure in Río Piedras, if we extrapolate to a place with more vehicular traffic or near some source that produces emissions related to combustion, the number will be even more dramatic,” said Mayol.

Puerto Rico’s environment has benefited from the lockdown that started in mid-March. According to the platform, Google COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports the island has had an 87% reduction in mobility. This means there is a significant decrease in carbon emissions.

Related: Pollution Can Be Life or Death for COVID-19 Patients. That’s Triggered a New Fight for Cleaner Air.

Mayol explained that EPA monitors the most damaging pollutants to public health and the environment, such as carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, ozone and particulate matter (the most monitored in the world). 

“Carbon monoxide is very toxic at very high levels, because it has a direct impact on our respiratory system, it substitutes oxygen for the hemoglobin molecule, which is the one that transports blood in the body. It’s a silent killer” Mayol added.

She explained that Puerto Rico has two advantages: it doesn’t have a big population, so compared to cities where the pollution levels are high, it’s not so polluted; and the trade winds deflect the pollution.

“We would like governments to evaluate the alternatives. Unfortunately we have seen that environmental policies have not been Trump’s focus. And now during this emergency it has suspended environmental air and water laws, giving businesses a benefit,” said Mayol.

At the end of March, the Trump administration indefinitely suspended some environmental protection laws, including vehicle emissions. The new guidelines from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established that it won’t be necessary for power plants, factories or other companies to meet environmental standards or report pollution. Experts warned the move will lead to more life-threatening air pollution and force people to spend more on gasoline.

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