We tend to enforce this cultural binary of city versus nature, dirty versus clean. We see nature as this pure, separate place, but really, the grass growing through the concrete on the sidewalk outside our apartment is nature, too. COVID-19 seems to have only strengthened this binary, with people fleeing the city in search of rural sanctuary perceived to be “safer.”
But is there really anything inherently cleaner about the forest? Is mountain air less… COVID-y?
It depends on your interpretation. What’s cool about mountains is that people tend not to be on them. If we’re defining cleanliness in terms of coronavirus alone, this is the only real determining factor. If you take a thousand people and put them in an area the size of a football field, it doesn’t matter what elevation that area is at — unless they can all stay around six feet apart, they’ll be risking the spread of coronavirus through their respiratory droplets.
So, mountain air is only less COVID-y to the extent that it’s less densely populated than the city you might be comparing it to. If you’re confined to your own apartment, then mountain air probably isn’t any less COVID-y than the air you’re breathing right now.
What about other forms of cleanliness, though?
It might seem obvious that rural areas would have less smog or other pollutants in the air than in areas with more people, but that’s not exactly the whole truth. In 2014, researchers from the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, compared data on air quality and ozone gasses across 60 miles of land, including areas of Denver and Rocky Mountain National Park. They found that even at high elevations in the national park, ozone pollutants were still present. In some areas, the pollutant levels at the tops of mountains were the same as at bottom. While a 2017 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that, statistically, rural counties in America experienced fewer days of unhealthy air quality than in metropolitan areas, this isn’t a universal truth — the oil and gas industry tends to mine rural areas for resources, resulting in higher rates of asthma and cancer in impacted counties.
A current virtual exhibit at the Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center, at the Boston Public Library, deals with the interpretation that rural areas are considered cleaner by demonstrating how data can be manipulated to reflect opposing assumptions. Their maps show that rural mountain towns in Western Massachusetts with small populations contain three times as many hazardous material release sites than Boston per 1,000 people. Of course, this statement intentionally distorts the fact that Boston has 479 hazardous material sites, whereas the rural towns in question have only one or two. Exactly what impact that has upon each area is unclear, but the point is that rural areas can be dramatically impacted by pollutants, even if only by a statistical measure.
Moreover, elevation ultimately has little to do with the cleanliness of the air. If nobody else is on the mountain with you, then yes, it will be less COVID-y. At the same time, so would the bottom of the ocean — or the 500 square feet of your apartment.