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Climate and Environment

California's Air Pollution Inequity Is Clear — Even During The Pandemic Lockdown

Cars and truck drive along a wide freeway as the downtown Los Angeles skyline is close but partially visible in the background due to the haze of smog.
The downtown Los Angeles skyline is visible (kind of) on on a hazy morning in Sept. 2018.
(Frederic J. Brown
AFP via Getty Images)
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Air pollution data from the pandemic lockdown point to racial inequities in which communities get access to clean air.

Researchers at UC San Diego were not surprised that non-white neighborhoods had worse air quality. But a study looking at data from across the state during the 2020 shelter-in-place order highlighted who is getting what kind of pollution in their own backyards.

Using data from air monitor networks and satellite measurements of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels, researchers compared air pollution before and during lockdown.

Co-author Pascal Polonik said Latino and Asian communities saw a larger improvement in air quality while businesses shut down and people weren’t driving very much.

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“Although that might sound like a benefit, it actually tells us that in normal times without the shutdown, those communities are experiencing disproportionate harm from those human emissions," he said.

But Black neighborhoods didn’t see any air quality improvement because the local polluters are oil refineries and power plants, which kept operating through the lockdown.

Polonik said the data reflects a policy failure in California where, despite many regulations in place, "certain people are benefiting more than others from these environmental protections.”

He adds while the data also connected income to air quality, race was the biggest correlation found.

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