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Measuring Air Pollution in America's Cities

Sieren Ernst's picture
Ethics & Environment

Sieren Ernst is the co-founder and CEO of the Climate Cost Project, a data and documentary non-profit focused on bringing to light the immediate costs of climate change to American communities....

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At the end of last year, the EPA approved a little- noticed rule that will allow for the removal of near-road nitrogen dioxide monitors from the roads in mid-sized cities. While in recent weeks the press has been full of stories about possible EPA cuts that will happen under the Trump administration, this EPA rollback happened under the Obama administration. The EPA claims that the monitors are not needed, but environmental groups are threatening to sue.

Why do these near-road monitors matter? Roadside air pollution monitors track the hazardous gases and airborne particles that we breathe while walking down the street or driving cars. Until recently, this wasn’t being measured in the United States at all. That changed in 2010 when the EPA’s new standard for nitrogen dioxide monitoring mandated that a total of 126 roadside monitors be placed in large population areas. The revised rule will reduce that number to just 73 nitrogen dioxide monitors in the whole United States. That’s far less than other countries. In fact, there are 40 roadside monitors in the city of London alone.

Ignorance, unfortunately, won’t protect us. Already, half of all Americans breathe dirty air, according to a 2016 report by the American Lung Association. As a result, Americans are dying prematurely–dirty air leads to lung and heart disease, increases the likelihood of stroke, and increases risks of pre-term pregnancy, autism, and dementia. With decreased roadside monitoring, we won’t be able to track these health effects and take steps to alleviate them, and we may stay sicker as a result.

If you haven’t been worried about how air pollution is affecting your health, you’re not alone. People have a false sense of security, largely due to inadequate air- quality monitoring. Part of the problem is that the EPA only measures average, or ‘airshed’ pollution, which underreports the toxins that most people breathe on a typical day. In Washington D.C., there only are six air quality monitoring stations. Four of these monitors are in low-traffic areas, including one in the center of the twenty-five acre McMillan Reservoir, where cars are not allowed. Further, the air quality index, which measures a region’s pollution, is based on average readings from the monitors in D.C. over a twenty-four hour period. This calculation leads to artificially low reports of air pollution, as it includes measurements of nighttime hours, when there are few cars on the road. Looking at average levels of air pollution has its uses, but it doesn’t truly capture what people encounter in their everyday lives. Using the air quality index to determine if you’re breathing dirty air is about as useful as looking at your indoor thermostat to determine if it’s cold outside.

This flawed system has real consequences for regular people. In 2013 people in the D.C. neighborhood of Ivy City sued to prevent the construction of a diesel bus depot in their neighborhood. Because D.C.’s only roadside monitor was far from the affected community, residents had no access to official data to demonstrate they were being harmed. They had to bring in experts to measure the air quality. The measurements showed that the air quality, even before the depot was to bring in idling diesel busses, was much worse than the city average. But the community still lost the case because the law only recognized the data from official EPA monitors, which didn’t reflect the local air quality in Ivy City.

In 2010, when the EPA announced its plan to put roadside monitors in US cities, part of its stated goal was to have monitors in vulnerable communities. But what is happening instead is that averaged data is still being used in court cases to paper over the bad air to which vulnerable communities are exposed. Air pollution is an invisible menace to the health of all Americans. We need to track it accurately by adding more monitors, not by taking them away.

Photo Credit: joiseyshowaa via Flickr

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