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COVID-19 pandemic reveals persistent disparities in nitrogen dioxide pollution [Sustainability Science]
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America  (IF11.205),  Pub Date : 2021-07-27, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2022409118
Gaige Hunter Kerr, Daniel L. Goldberg, Susan C. Anenberg

The unequal spatial distribution of ambient nitrogen dioxide (NO2), an air pollutant related to traffic, leads to higher exposure for minority and low socioeconomic status communities. We exploit the unprecedented drop in urban activity during the COVID-19 pandemic and use high-resolution, remotely sensed NO2 observations to investigate disparities in NO2 levels across different demographic subgroups in the United States. We show that, prior to the pandemic, satellite-observed NO2 levels in the least White census tracts of the United States were nearly triple the NO2 levels in the most White tracts. During the pandemic, the largest lockdown-related NO2 reductions occurred in urban neighborhoods that have 2.0 times more non-White residents and 2.1 times more Hispanic residents than neighborhoods with the smallest reductions. NO2 reductions were likely driven by the greater density of highways and interstates in these racially and ethnically diverse areas. Although the largest reductions occurred in marginalized areas, the effect of lockdowns on racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic NO2 disparities was mixed and, for many cities, nonsignificant. For example, the least White tracts still experienced ∼1.5 times higher NO2 levels during the lockdowns than the most White tracts experienced prior to the pandemic. Future policies aimed at eliminating pollution disparities will need to look beyond reducing emissions from only passenger traffic and also consider other collocated sources of emissions such as heavy-duty vehicles.