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Coronavirus Has Reduced Air Pollution, But Not The Risk In Some San Diego Communities

Traffic on a San Diego freeway is shown in this file photo, Nov. 22, 2011.
Associated Press
Traffic on a San Diego freeway is shown in this file photo, Nov. 22, 2011.
San Diego’s most at-risk neighborhoods saw an improvement in air quality when the COVID-19 shutdowns began, but pollution levels are already climbing back up.

San Diegan’s living in neighborhoods near the border and the waterfront’s industrial areas face persistent pollution-related health risks and while pollution is down the risk remains high.

One National City resident noticed the impact of the COVID-19 shutdowns as soon as that happened.

Coronavirus Has Reduced Air Pollution, But Not The Risk In Some San Diego Communities
Listen to this story by Erik Anderson.

“Freeways are open,” Sandy Naranjo said.


The Barrio Logan mom’s observations are borne out by state transportation numbers which found the stay-at-home orders cut freeway traffic in half in March and early April.

“We don’t see traffic,” Naranjo said. “But what you do see is still goods coming through.”

She is talking about truck traffic, typically the cargo-carrying vehicles with dirtier diesel engines.

But the reduction in car traffic through her urban neighborhood is welcome for a woman who has suffered from severe asthma since she was 3.

“I have noticed that the air has been cleaner, generally speaking,” Naranjo said.


RELATED: San Diego Is Shrinking Carbon Footprint During Coronavirus Shutdown

In fact, San Diego air pollution was down 31% during the first five weeks of the COVID-19 shutdown.

A California based firm that monitors air pollution recorded significant drops in levels of ozone, carbon monoxide, fine particular matter, and nitrogen dioxide.

“No surprise given that we’ve been seeing that around the state,” said Melissa Lunden, the chief scientist for the pollution-monitoring firm Aclima.

A rainy spring contributed to the cleaner air, but Lunden said that was not the only driver.

“I think we expected nitrogen dioxide to decrease and carbon monoxide, NOx, CO because those are pollutants that directly reflect combustion sources for the most part,” Lunden said.

Simply stated, there were fewer cars on the road because of the pandemic. Aclima drove hybrid vehicles carrying mobile monitors on every street in San Diego’s downtown and industrial waterfront repeatedly since 2019. The firm also measures air pollution in San Ysidro and Escondido.

“We drive every street in that area multiple times over different times of day and days of the week to get a sort of average concentration of the air pollution on that street, outside your house, outside your school over the time period we’re driving,” Lunden said.

California pays Aclima to track air quality in the state’s most polluted neighborhoods. Barrio Logan, west National City, and San Ysidro are among them.

RELATED: With Few Fliers, San Diego Airport Struggling With Coronavirus Fallout

Commercial traffic at the port’s 10th Avenue terminal and at the international border crossings did not decline that much during the shutdown.

Big trucks hauling cargo still put large amounts of black carbon into the air.

“Those communities, in particular, didn’t get that much of a break,” said David Flores, of the National City base Environmental Health Coalition. The group fights to clean the air in these predominantly Hispanic communities.

“We know that that research is pointing to the fact that these communities have already been impacted by poor air quality, are a higher risk factor for something like a COVID pandemic,” Flores said.

So those neighborhoods don’t get the benefit of cleaner air linked to COVID-19 shutdowns, because long term exposure to air pollution means people who live there are at higher risk for complications from COVID-19 infections.

Flores sees a mixed palette when it comes to effort.

“We’re really excited and glad that the air pollution control district and the Port of San Diego are starting to look for solutions. And we’re working very collaboratively to find them,” Flores said. “But we’re not seeing as much advancement for cross-border issues. You know there is a cross-border issue and taking it seriously would help. And so, that’s a concern."

Cross-border commercial traffic hit record levels last year, and Flores said the traffic has not fallen off a lot during the COVID pandemic. That means pollution from big rigs continues to impact at-risk neighborhoods, like San Ysidro, National City and Barrio Logan.

RELATED: San Diego Protesters, Angry About Coronavirus Restrictions, Rally Downtown

And National City is where Sandy Naranjo is raising two kids.

“You can see in my neighborhood it’s still ranked within the top 15 percent most polluted neighborhood in California,” Naranjo said. “So that means my kids have a good chance of being diagnosed with asthma or any other disease that’s linked to pollution.”

Clean air advocates want local officials to give the air pollution problem the same attention they give to COVID-19.

They argue that years of exposure to dirty air makes pandemics like the coronavirus even more dangerous in San Diego’s urban neighborhoods.