Air Clean Up
Why Do US Air Monitors Miss Pollution?
Dec 07 2020
Despite President Trump’s claims that the USA has the cleanest air of any country in the world, such a stance is patently mistaken. Indeed, the Environmental Performance Index – an annual study produced by Yale University, one of America’s most prestigious centres of learning – placed the US at number 16 in the world in its 2020 air quality rankings… and that’s based upon the flawed data gathered by its air monitors.
Just how serious the problem of air pollution is in the US is anyone’s guess at the moment, largely due to the fact that the national air quality monitoring system regularly misses out on significant types and concentrations of pollution. Such shortfalls even occur in the wake of a major environmental disaster, such as the recent explosion of an oil refinery in Philadelphia. How can this happen?
A huge oversight
Last year, a Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery in Pennsylvania exploded due to a systemic malfunction. In the process, over 300,000kg of dangerous chemicals (such as butane) were released into the environment. Almost 1,500kg of hydrofluoric acid were emitted in the same blast. Despite these substances being highly dangerous to human health, neither registered any impact on the country’s Air Quality Index (AQI). In fact, the AQI reported southern Philadelphia as having one of the clearest and cleanest days of 2019.
This kind of error isn’t an isolated incident, either. According to an exposé conducted by international news agency Reuters, the national network of 3,900 monitoring stations and devices failed to register any activity from the 10 biggest refinery explosions of the last decade. That’s a significant discrepancy that gives a hugely distorted view of the cleanliness of the country’s airways. What’s causing the problem?
No particulate monitoring
According to information provided by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), approximately 120 million US citizens live in areas which do not offer any monitoring of small particle pollution whatsoever. For context, that means that over a third of all Americans have no idea how much particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5) they are inhaling on a daily basis, despite the fact that the contaminant is one of the most deadly there is.
With advances in science and technology having produced revolutionary outdoor monitoring solutions for PMx and black carbon, there is no excuse for the richest and most developed economy in the world to not have taken advantage of them. That’s especially true given that PM is such a ubiquitous pollutant, produced primarily by car exhausts, power plants and industrial smokestacks.
As well as missing a significant chunk of pollutants in the air altogether, even the monitoring infrastructure which is in place to catch other forms of contamination is woefully inadequate. The system suffers from chronic underfunding, meaning that local municipalities must rely on outdated and ineffective devices for their data. Even a 2013 analysis conducted under the tenure of Barack Obama found significant issues with the existing network.
Sadly, despite the availability of major new low cost air quality monitoring technology, the situation has actually deteriorated since that report was made public. Federal grants issued to local air quality monitoring organisations have not increased in 15 years, while a lack of available spending has meant that the total number of EPA monitors has fallen by 4% between 2015 and 2020. Meanwhile, countless Americans are exposed to unquantifiable levels of pollution, wreaking irrevocable damage on their bodies.
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