Historically good summer for air quality in Virginia

Fewer cars on the road due to COVID-19 contributed to the best air quality since 2017.
Air quality was historically good this year in Virginia.
Air quality was historically good this year in Virginia.(WWBT)
Updated: Oct. 1, 2020 at 11:38 AM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - Air quality in Virginia was historically good this year across the Commonwealth.

No unhealthy air quality readings were found at 22 of the 23 ozone pollution monitors set up by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. Loudon County in Northern Virginia experienced one day with air considered to be “unhealthy for sensitive groups such as children, the elderly and those with heart or lung issues”.

This summer had 34 more “good” air quality days than the previous record “good” year in 2017.

Ground level ozone, which is unhealthy for people to breathe, happens as a result of motor vehicle exhaust, power plants, and industrial emissions. Ozone levels tend to be highest on hot, sunny days.

One possible explanation for the historically low levels is the COVID-19 pandemic, which means fewer commuters on the road as more people work from home. But air quality in Virginia has been improving steadily for years thanks to stricter environmental policies and restrictions on emissions.

“This year we experienced 50 percent more days with ‘good’ air quality than we’ve seen during the previous five years,” said Air and Renewable Energy Division Director Michael Dowd. “The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in many drivers staying off the road and that has had an effect on Virginia’s low ozone readings; however, the low levels of pollution we are seeing this year are certainly in line with the long-term trend of lower ozone concentrations.”

NBC12′s Andrew Freiden points out that it was also a wetter than average summer across much of Virginia, and that may have contributed to the historically good air quality. Extended periods of dry, hot weather allow the air to become stagnant, and rain helps to “flush out” the chemicals that lead to bad air quality days.

It is important to understand the difference between these historic improvements in air quality and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global warming. Although the two issues are loosely related, an improvement in air quality does not equate to slowing or stopping global warming. More work is needed to cut down on carbon dioxide and methane emissions, two of the primary gases that lead to a warming earth.

“For too many years, we experienced extreme air pollution but through the development of more stringent pollution regulations and controls, I’m happy to say that ozone pollution isn’t the threat it used to be,” said DEQ Director David Paylor. “It’s taken a lot of hard work to get here, but we now consider ozone another environmental success story similar to how we effectively controlled acid rain. We will stay vigilant and maintain these important advances for Virginia’s environment as we turn our attention to the next challenge, controlling greenhouse gas emissions.”

Current regional air quality conditions and forecasts are available on DEQ’s website.

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