Clearing the Air

For professor Monica Mazurek, fuel efficiency is the key to keeping air cleaner after New Jersey reopens

On Friday, May 1, New Jersey reported a total of 7,222 deaths from COVID-19, after experiencing its highest single-day death toll. While there is little upside to the epic chaos and disruption wreaked by the viral pandemic, a dramatic improvement in New Jersey’s air quality – long ranked among the nation’s ten worst – is cause for temporary optimism.
In fact, according to, levels of particulate matter and nitrogen oxide – the   pollutants primarily responsible for smog and poor air quality –were substantially lower in the New York metropolitan area this past March than they had been in March 2019. The reason, according Monica Mazurek, an associate professor in Rutgers School of Engineering’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is due to the decreased traffic on the roads as people hunker down or work remotely in response to Governor Phil Murphy’s stay-at-home order.
Mazurek, a pioneering researcher in the study of organic particulate pollutants, or soot, identifies diesel engines as the main source of particulate matter air pollution in New Jersey. When fewer of these vehicles are on the roadways she says, “It’s like throwing a switch. The effects are immediate.” 
However, she is quick to warn that this is only a temporary respite: once New Jersey’s stay-at-home order is fully lifted, air pollution levels will quickly rebound to their previous highs.
While breathing polluted air contributes to a host of potentially fatal heart and lung problems such as cardiac arrhythmia and decreased lung function, a recent Harvard study has linked exposure to fine particulate matter, or PM 2.5, in major metropolitan areas with a significantly greater risk of death from COVID-19’s attack on already compromised lungs. “A small increase in long-term exposure to PM 2.5 leads to a large increase in COVID-19 death rate, with the magnitude of increase 20 times that observed for PM2.5 and all-cause mortality,” the study concluded.
For Mazurek, the results of the Harvard study sparked what she describes as an aha moment. “COVID-19, like exposure to PM 2.5, causes lung inflammation. The study connected the dots for me in terms of who dies from the virus and what their exposure has been to PM 2.5 in urban areas.”
According to Mazurek, who had worked on a landmark Caltech study that chemically quantified and measured organic particulate matter, the long-term, post-COVID-19 shutdown solution for cleaner air is for cars, trucks, and buses to restrict fuel emissions by switching transportation fuels. “California did this and the air quality there these days is pretty good,” she explains. “Fine particles aren’t emitted as plentifully from transportation sources like buses and trucks when they switch from diesel to natural gas.”
She is especially concerned about the EPA’s recent relaxation of a 2012 rule that called for a fuel efficiency of 52 miles per gallon by 2025 for new cars. “As a result of this, you will see more consumption of fuel per mile. What most people don’t consider is that for every gallon of gas consumed, 19.6 pounds of carbon dioxide are emitted. Yet this is something we all need to be thinking about in order to improve local air quality. The bottom line is that to do this long-term, we need to improve fuel efficiency.” For Mazurek, the stay-at-home mandate is clearly showing that this is the right path to follow.