Pittsburgh skyline
Pittsburgh skyline.

If there’s one thing that Pennsylvanians actually agree on, it’s the need for cleaner air.

Eighty-nine percent of Pennsylvanians say that environmental policies that promote clean air are important to them, according to a new statewide poll conducted by Susquehanna Polling & Research on behalf of the Clean Air Council. A strong majority, 60%, say that it’s “very important.”

“This poll shows clean air cannot be framed as a partisan issue,” says said Joseph Minott, executive director of the Clean Air Council. “Strong majorities of all voters, including independents, support policies that promote clean air and carbon-free energy sources.”

The poll of 701 registered and likely Pennsylvania voters was conducted from April 13-21.

It’s the first statewide poll of its kind since the COVID-19 crisis. When survey respondents were told of a recent Harvard study that connects higher levels of air pollution to greater death rates from coronavirus, 69% said that they support new policies that do more to protect air quality. (Both coronavirus and air pollution affect the lungs.)

“People were making the connections in their minds — if you’re chronically exposed to air pollution, you’re more susceptible to viral diseases,” explains Minott.

Another finding is that 63% of Pennsylvanians feel that elected officials should support policies that encourage the use of clean energy sources like solar, wind and nuclear — instead of fossil fuels like oil and gas. Twenty-four percent do not support those policies.

When asked about the electricity that powers their homes, 72% of Pennsylvanians say it’s important that it comes from energy sources that don’t create carbon emissions. Only 25% said that wasn’t important.

This past week was National Air Quality Awareness Week. This is also the beginning of ozone season when nitrogen oxides from vehicle traffic and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) react with heat to create ground-level ozone or smog.

That said, the air is clearly improving, because there are fewer vehicles on the road due to COVID-19.

“In Philadelphia, where I’m headquartered, traffic has come to a complete stop, and that is the single largest contributor to air pollution in the region, even though you have larger stationary sources (of pollution) in Western Pennsylvania,” says Minott.

“I’ll go one step further and assume that if there is less traffic through the summer, we should see an improvement in ozone/smog.”

The virus could spur changes that prove long-lasting.

“What we may see long term is a greater acceptance of remote working, and that could have greater consequences when it comes to traffic,” says Minott.

Southwestern Pennsylvania, of course, also has its own distinct sources of air pollution.

“Aging industrial facilities like the coke and steel plants that emit a lot of air pollution — there is a problem with making sure that these facilities comply with their permits and are sufficiently penalized if things go wrong,” explains Minott.

Strong support for cleaner air isn’t unusual in the commonwealth but Pennsylvanians don’t always back it up with action.

“I’ve been an environmental activist in Pennsylvania since 1982,” says Minott. “One of the things that surprises me is that there’s always strong support here for environmental protection. But it’s an issue people don’t hold their elected officials accountable for.

“If it’s important to you, when you go vote, you should know if the person you support has the same values as you — and you need to hold them accountable for that,” he adds. “That doesn’t seem to be happening enough anywhere in the U.S., but especially in Southwestern Pennsylvania.”

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.