Short-term impacts of virus give positive change to environment

The immediate effects of the COVID-19 outbreak have had a positive effect on the environment with limited CO2 emissions. Brittney Matthews | Multimedia Editor

By Jessica Harkay | Reporter

As the COVID-19 outbreak reached over 500,000 cases early Thursday afternoon and nearly a third of the world’s population is under some type of restriction or lock down, the disease has grown into a global pandemic.

With millions forced to work and study in quarantine and practice social distancing, a few unexpected consequences have risen, including the decline of carbon monoxide emissions and improvements in air quality. Columbia University estimated that traffic levels have dropped by 35%, and in hand, CO2 levels from transportation have dropped as far as 50%.

Alongside Columbia’s research, Dr. Erica D. Bruce, Baylor associate professor and graduate program director, said a big factor on the reduced pollution levels is from the lack of domestic and international travel.

“There are some great graphics of the changes in China from these changes as well as the industrial contribution reductions when China was on lockdown and these industries were closed,” Bruce said.

Alongside the environmental impacts, Program Coordinator for the Environmental Health Science Department and Baylor professor Dr. Benjamin Ryan said that there is other positives as well.

“Beyond the environmental benefits, there may be public health advantages,” Ryan said. “For example, this may reduce exacerbations of respiratory conditions and other illnesses triggered by air pollution. Also, more people may have time to exercise, improving their overall health.”

But even with reports of Italian canals clearing up and satellite evidence of environmental improvements, Ryan said it’s important to note there’s still possibilities for negative impacts.

“Current systems are designed for people to attend work and school. Having people at home for such a long-period will change the use of the system,” Ryan said. “Whether this has been positive, or negative is unknown. For example, there are reports the Venice canals have cleared up due to reduced traffic, but they are not necessarily any cleaner as sediments have remained at the bottom. Also, there will be changes in the flows into wastewater and sewer pump stations.”

Ryan predicts that once the pandemic is under control, it won’t take long to shift back to previous activity, but with that comes a learning experience.

“From an environmental health perspective, the COVID-19 experience will enhance awareness of the need for good hygiene standards and practices,” Ryan said. “Providing an opportunity to promote practices across the community that help mitigate and correct conditions in the environment that may cause disease or future disease outbreaks.”

Bruce said he agreed that the little improvements can push people to “make more concerted efforts to be environmentally conscious.”

“By making the changes more visible to everyone, lawmakers, policy makers,” Bruce said. “If people can ‘see’ what the benefits are it will be easier to convince people to be better stewards of the environment.”

For now, as the Baylor community finds itself at home alongside millions of others, there’s little things to help remotely.

“While at home, we can focus on following the usual practices for reducing pollution and use of resources,” Ryan said. “For example, recycle, monitor energy usage, conserve water, avoid putting chemicals down the drain and do not flush wet wipes as these can damage and block the sewer system.”