After a summer of poor air quality, Lori Lightfoot seeks to bring environmental


The fight around improving air quality has become louder in the past year as COVID-19, a respiratory virus, has renewed concerns for clean air. Multiple studies have shown the link between polluted areas and increased COVID-19 mortality, including a team of Harvard scientists who found that living in an area with increased soot levels for more than 20 years increased fatality in COVID-19 cases by 8 percent. The masks haven’t been doing much against air pollution either, as the particles are small enough to be breathed in through a mask. 

What does this mean for Chicago’s air quality issues at large?

Despite our hopes for a silver lining, our efforts to stay at home during the COVID-19 lockdown did little to improve our environmental emissions issued in Chicago. Soot levels in the Chicago area declined by only 1 percent in April compared with the previous year. Compare this to New York City, whose soot levels fell by 28 percent, or Los Angeles at 16 percent, during the shelter-in-place orders. 

Mark Potosnak, chair of the Department of Environmental Science & Studies at DePaul University, has an interesting hypothesis about why Chicago did not enjoy the same environmental benefits of the COVID-19 shutdown as other major cities.

 “While a lot of commuter traffic did go down, Chicago is a regional transportation hub for both trucks and trains,” said Potosnak. “Just because of our geography, we really are the gateway to the West, so diesel emissions stayed mostly consistent over the shutdown as commercial goods were still moved across the country.” 

Potosnak is currently researching this topic, and although the research is not completed, the data is showing support for this hypothesis so far. One example he gave is that Northbrook and other northern suburbs actually did see slight improvement in air quality during the shutdown, but the Midway area and Southwest Side saw less or no improvement, as they are located closer to these transportation and industrial corridors.

While Los Angeles is notorious for its poor air quality, Chicago’s was actually worse during this summer due to unusually hot Midwestern weather baking auto exhaust into ground-level ozone chemicals, also known as smog. 

This summer was especially bad for a bevy of reasons, such as the increase in fireworks usage over the summer, which release chemicals that don’t dissipate if the air is not properly circulating (if you or your loved ones had trouble breathing over Fourth of July weekend, this could be why!). Lake Michigan and the wind often play a role, too, as smog-forming pollutants called “pre-cursors” form over the water and are brought onto land via the wind. Potosnak also cited the unusually warm weather, as high air climate and poor air quality are historically correlated. 

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warned that the first nine days of July this summer were “unhealthy for sensitive groups” encouraging children, the elderly, and adults with lung or heart disease to limit their outdoor activity. As you may be able to imagine, this was likely not fully adhered to over the holiday weekend.

But on a larger scale, beyond just Chicago, air quality is worsening overall as climate change triggers extreme weather, one tenet of which is dirty air. As climate change worsens, its effects are exacerbated by the lack of response in terms of federal regulations. One of President Donald Trump’s biggest action items of the past year was weakening around 100 environmental and clean air regulations, and under his leadership the EPA has ignored new research that shows smog is more toxic to humans than previously believed, according to multiple reports. 

Did you notice the sky looking hazy – or even milky – a few weeks back? NBC Chicago reported in mid-September, wildfires on the west coast caused a massive plume of smoke which was pulled eastward by the wind. Despite the menacing appearance, and the fact that the wildfires caused some of…

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