The clear air in Los Angeles is trying to tell us something

It’s breathtaking what collective action can do – and undo – for air quality

It’s not a mirage. The skies above Los Angeles have not been this clear this long for, well, no one can quite remember. 


The pace of life had already begun to slow even before California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a state-wide shelter-in-place order on March 19. Since then, freeway congestion has all but disappeared.


LA’s shutdown introduced a “step change” in the amount of tailpipe exhaust, dust and other pollutants generated daily in the city, according to Edward Avol, professor of clinical preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California. 


This was followed by some steady rain and steady wind which cleaned out the grime that usually blankets the LA basin. 


The resulting clear air has created a set of incongruous public health conditions. At the same time, hospitals are girding for a flood of COVID-19 patients, they may be getting some help from the cleaner air


“Polluted air is associated with asthma events, increased medications, increased respiratory disease, increased cardiovascular disease,” said Avol, who studies the impact of air pollution on public health. “Those things [now] happen less. Less medication, less need to visit the doctor.”


Perhaps this is the silver lining of the pandemic: many Angelenos might be enjoying health benefits which are seldom seen. 


In Los Angeles, traffic is most often associated with longer commute times. Los Angeles, in fact, ranks No. 1 among major U.S. cities in terms of the amount of time commuters spend delayed by traffic, at 119 hours per year, according to a study by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute


Now, however, the improvements staying home is bringing to air quality are on vivid display. 


“This sort of demonstrates the potential power of something we may not have appreciated, such as telecommuting,” Avol said. “If we can get people truly off the streets, we not only deal with the congestion, the traffic problems, but the air quality.”


Bear in mind, the cleaner air can vanish as quickly as it arrived. 


“So-called ‘normal’ – congestion traffic, hundreds of thousands of vehicles on the roads at rush hour – I think we’ll get back to it pretty quick,” Avol said. “Within the course of a day or two you’ll see the smog recreate itself.”