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The current public stay-at-home order and the shutdown of non-essential manufacturing and commercial businesses due to the pandemic has had one positive effect on New Jersey: Air quality has greatly improved.

Monica Mazurek, associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Rutgers University, said we can credit the good air quality to reduced vehicle miles traveled and the types of vehicles on the roadway. Diesel vehicles are the most problematic emissions source, she said.

A recent Harvard report linked fine particle concentration in air pollution with the intensity of COVID-19 cases and mortality. Mazurek said people who are ill with respiratory effects from COVID-19 are going to be returning to poor air quality if everything ramps up to what it was before the pandemic.

"We can't go back to normal if we want to protect public health, if we want to have this long-term chronic exposure to fine particle concentrations go back to what we experienced before COVID-19," she said.

She believes that once the economy starts ramping up again, the same sources of emissions and the intensity of these sources will most likely return to "normal levels."

"This is a great time to reset how our transportation miles are fueled," Mazurek said.

She was part of a team at the California Institute of Technology that looked at the sources of fine particles in the air over Los Angeles. They determined fine particles come from on-road transportation, especially diesel.

She said states like New Jersey can switch fuel from diesel to natural gas to help with emission sources. Buses that fill up with natural gas instead of diesel can make a dramatic change in air quality.

"If we do something about controlling the number of vehicle miles that are traveled by diesel vehicles, we can do something to change the fine particle concentrations over time," said Mazurek.

She also suggested that people take a look at their own vehicles or the public transit that they use to find out their fuel efficiency. In 2012, the federal government set an average emissions target of more than 50 miles per gallon by the year 2025.

Mazurek said individuals can affect the air quality in their communities by having efficient engines.

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