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For many, the past few weeks have been tough, but at least we’ve had a respite from pollution: With Americans staying home, emptying the roads and highways of traffic, skies have cleared across the country
That, at least, feels good. But for neighborhoods with historically high levels of air pollution, a temporary clearing of the air won’t reverse years of damage wrought by the high levels of particulate pollution, ozone and other pollutants in the air they breathe.
I featured three such neighborhoods in my recent look at the effects of coronavirus and air pollution. Research has shown that polluting industries are disproportionately located in or near low-income, predominantly black or Latino neighborhoods. And, while the exact relationship between air pollution and Covid-19 is still unclear, research has shown that exposure to air pollution can make people more vulnerable to similar respiratory illnesses.
As Michigan State Representative Tyrone Carter, a Detroit native who tested positive for the virus in late March, told me: “Your environment and your ZIP code have a lot to do with your life expectancy.”
The Trump administration has added to concerns of these local communities by drastically relaxing rules for polluters in response to the pandemic, and declining to tighten regulations on industrial emissions that came up for review ahead of the coronavirus outbreak. We track these reversals, and more, in our comprehensive rollback tracker.
Take a look. Are there concerns over air pollution, and what that means amid the pandemic, in your neighborhood? You can reach me on Twitter: @HirokoTabuchi
The data, on consumption in homes in 30 states, shows that energy use began to rise in many states about a week before stay-at-home orders were issued but after states of emergency were declared.
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The data comes from Sense, a company based in Cambridge, Mass., that sells a device to help homeowners track energy use through a smartphone app.
The information comes with some caveats. For instance, the devices tend to be popular with tech-savvy early adopters, and the typical Sense home is larger than most. Overall data came from about 5,000 of the devices across 30 states that were geographically representative of the country, the company said.
Like a recent study of electricity use in New York City apartments, the Sense data shows a sharp rise in consumption, with most of the increase coming during the day, when in normal times many people would be at work or school. Across all 30 states, the company reported a 22 percent average increase in overall domestic consumption from March 10 to April 10 this year compared with 2019. The data was adjusted to account for weather differences.
Broken down by date and state — the company looked at data for California, New York and seven other states individually — the results are even more intriguing.
George Zavaliagkos, the company’s vice president of technology, said that when he first started looking at the data, he expected to see a rise in energy use in a given state when that state’s government issued a lockdown order. California was the first state to order a statewide lockdown, on March 19. New York and other states followed quickly.
“But that’s not what we saw,” Mr. Zavaliagkos said. “In almost all the states, around March 10, consumers started using more and more energy. Almost everybody moved in tandem.”
Many states had declared a state of emergency at least several days before. Some local governments, including several counties in California, issued their own stay-at-home orders that preceded state mandates.
California’s huge state university system began to close campuses on March 10, and other colleges and universities around the country soon followed suit, forcing many students to return home. Around the same time, some of the nation’s largest employers, including Amazon, began to tell many of their employees to stop coming to the office.
All of this may have contributed to the earlier rise in home energy use, Mr. Zavaliagkos said.
Two states, Arizona and North Carolina, bucked the trend, with far lower energy consumption increases during the time period. Those states issued stay-at-home orders later — North Carolina’s began on March 30, Arizona’s a day later. In both states, home energy use included in the survey increased by less than 10 percent after March 14, less than half the average for all 30 states.
The data doesn’t provide any clues as to why residents of those states appeared to have stayed home less. “Maybe you listen to the news,” Mr. Zavaliagkos said. “You hear what happened in Italy, you hear that Google is sending everybody home. But you also hear that your state is not reacting immediately and you say, let me listen to what my own local governor is saying.”
“I don’t claim that we can untangle the story,” he said.
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