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Stay-home orders allowing scientists to study different sources of pollution

Public health orders gave scientists an unprecedented chance to study a changed environment and figure out what other our cars is polluting Colorado's air.

DENVER — Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are specifically researching the impact on air pollution, since Coloradans were told to stay home because of COVID-19. Jessica Gilman, a research chemist at NOAA, said they have been collecting data in Boulder around the clock since March 30. 

The results are what many people might expect. 

"It's been cleaner than what it was," said Gilman. 

Gilman said volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are down 50% compared to the same time period in 2018, which is connected to a drop in cars on the road.

When VOCs interact with other pollutants and the sun, the result can add to the ozone problem and impact air quality. 

The findings resemble what the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) also found while tracking air pollution during the coronavirus pandemic. 

"Decrease 10 to 50 percent for all pollutants," said Scott Landes with CDPHE. "Continue to see those trends through April." 

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However, the drop does not mean pollution completely disappeared. Gilman said researchers realized they had a unique opportunity to study the next layer of the problem. 

"I've got my hand lotion, hand sanitizer I carry with me everywhere. Paint coatings, adhesives, shampoo deodorant," she said, listing off other factors that might contribute to pollution.

All of those can be sources of VOCs. Gilman said emissions happening inside houses can get mixed with outside air and impact air quality. Air quality relates to ozone and particle formation. 

Researchers know people are using these common household items, but with fewer cars on the road, they are able to study emissions from them more clearly. 

LINK: A deep dive into CDPHE's findings on pollution during stay-home orders

"This just makes it that much easier to understand the contribution of that one particular source, consumer products, can have on air quality," she explained. 

Of course, this goes beyond just shampoos and lotions, and includes research on emissions from construction sites and the oil and gas industry.

"Oil price is so low right now," said chemistry professor Joost De Gouw, with the University of Colorado Boulder. "Activity in the industry is decreasing." 

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All things considered, the new data is being gathered during extraordinary times, so what can researchers actually do with it?

"It's not something we hope to repeat anytime soon," said De Gouw. 

It tests scientists' understanding of where pollution comes from and gives a sneak peek at what the future could look like if more people telework or use electric vehicles, for example.

"Is this or [is it] not a good strategy to improve our air quality?" said De Gouw.

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