Phoenix Air Quality Has Improved With Stay-at-Home Order. But How Do We Maintain It?

By Jessica Swarner

April 24, 2020

While stay-at-home orders have temporarily improved air quality across the country, the American Lung Association warns pollution will soon spike back up. 

The Phoenix metro area ranked among the top 10 worst regions in the country for air pollution in three categories in the American Lung Association’s (ALA) latest annual State of the Air report. 

Phoenix was ranked the seventh-worst metro area for ozone and year-round particle pollution, and 10th-worst for short-term particle pollution. 

JoAnna Strother, senior director of advocacy for the ALA in Arizona, said there are a few reasons the Valley has a “perfect recipe” for continually ranking poorly when it comes to ozone, starting with lots of vehicle emissions. 

“Once that mixes with heat and sunlight, which we have most year-round, it helps produce ozone,” Strother told The Copper Courier. 

“We had some weather that contributed to some of those spikes of high, unhealthy days of ozone,” she added. “So there was some winter inversion patterns where the cooler air kind of stays trapped in the Valley and warmer air overtop of it, so it makes that air stagnant.”

The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality also cited weather as a big reason the state often sees poor air quality. 

“Driving our cars, burning wood in fireplaces and fire pits, even using a leaf blower instead of a broom. It can all add up to create pollution that impacts people’s health,” Daniel Czecholinski, the agency’s air quality division director, said in a press release. “If the weather is calm, as it often is in Arizona, pollution can build up and create a bigger problem that can persist for many days until a change in weather helps to clear the air.”

While the stay-at-home order put in place due to the coronavirus pandemic has led to an increase in good air quality days, Strother said it’s important to remember it’s only temporary. The report analyzed pollution levels for 2016-2018, so the current improvement in air quality was not factored into this year’s rankings. 

RELATED: The Earth’s Air Quality Is Getting A Lot Better As People Stay Home

“We also need to keep in mind that at some point there will be big spikes in pollution again, which will be the long-term problem,” she said. “But certainly it goes to show that driving less and having less vehicle emissions out there on our roads certainly can help to clean up the air.” 

And climate change is only going to make things harder, Strother added. Warmer temperatures, which contribute to more droughts, dust storms, and wildfires, lead to more pollutants trapped in the air. 

To sustain some of the air quality improvements once stay-at-home orders are lifted, Strother said employers should consider continuing to offer employees telecommuting options, and employees who still have to go to work should consider carpooling. State and local governments can also tighten environmental standards on big polluters and find ways to put more hybrid and zero-emissions vehicles on the road. 

Air pollution comes with many health risks, especially for people who are already vulnerable to respiratory conditions. According to the ALA, there are millions of at-risk people in Arizona, including seniors, people with asthma, and people with lung cancer.

“Studies show that air pollution exposure is linked to a greater risk of respiratory infection, and some very early evidence also suggests that exposure to air pollution might make people more vulnerable to COVID-19 infection,” Strother said. “So we do know that air pollution is playing an impact on people’s health.” 

But although things are looking bad in the Valley, Strother said it’s important to remember how much progress has been made since the passage of the Clean Air Act.  

“Even though we’re topping some of the most-polluted cities lists right now for Phoenix metro area, if you look back 50 years, we’ve really come a long way in cleaning air pollution up,” she said. “But, you know, there’s more work to be done.”

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  • Jessica Swarner

    Jessica Swarner is the community editor for The Copper Courier. She is an ASU alumna and previously worked at KTAR News 92.3 FM in Phoenix.

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