The Impact of COVID-19 on Air Quality in US Cities

Jordan Wildish
Mar 19 · 3 min read

The full scale of the coronavirus pandemic is still unknown, but it’s clear that the pandemic is having an enormous impact on the way we live, work, and interact in our communities.

In China, levels of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) also decreased significantly (20% — 30%) in China through the quarantine. PM2.5 largely comes from fossil fuel combustion — from cars, airplanes, woodstoves, and power plants. Although it can also come from natural sources like forest fires and volcanoes. In addition to being an indicator of economic activity, PM2.5 can cause serious cardiovascular and respiratory problems. In the US, the growing threat of the coronavirus is causing major changes to traffic patterns and economic activity, under the CDC’s social distancing advisement. Seattle, New York City, and San Francisco are among the first cities in the US to report large numbers of coronavirus cases. And, like China, it’s changing the levels of PM2.5 in our air. This data shows the clear impact that the Coronavirus has had on our communities and our economy, and the impact that we have on the environment.

in the past 5 days was 5.15 (Microgram/cubic meter) compared to 7.6 in the previous year and 32% decrease year-over-year. In New York City, the 5-day average was 28% lower than the previous year. San Francisco and Los Angeles have shown 38% and 11% decreases, respectively. These percentage declines are on par with the declines observed in China, although it should be noted that the levels in Seattle are New York were far lower overall than those observed in China.


Figure 1. Air Quality in the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue area. Source:

San Francisco

Figure 2 Air Quality in San Francisco. Source:

New York

Figure 3Air Quality in New York. Source:

This data shows the clear impact that the Coronavirus has had on the way we live our lives. Although full-scale of the economic impact of the virus is not yet known. However, this sharp decrease in PM2.5 is an indicator of the depth and breadth that this pandemic is having on our communities. From layoffs to school closures, and mandatory remote work, this crisis is fundamentally changing the way we move within our communities.

Although the economic costs of the pandemic aren’t yet fully known, the human costs are already clear. Much of what happens to the global economy in the coming months is out of our control, but we can all play a role in supporting our communities in this time of need.

Food banks are running low on supplies and volunteers, while the need for emergency food grows.

The American Red Cross has issued an urgent call for blood donations, as blood drive cancellations have impacted their operations.

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Natural Capital | Climate Mitigation

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