U.S. Launches Effort To Monitor Global Air Pollution From Embassies

CREDIT: flickr/Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier

View of southern Delhi, 2011.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of State and the EPA announced their intent to launch a new partnership to monitor air pollution at embassies, consulates and other diplomatic missions around the world. Secretary of State John Kerry and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy attended the signing ceremony, which highlighted the links between local air pollution and global climate change. Both types of pollution — often coming from coal-fired power plants or diesel burning vehicles — spread easily across borders, making them harder to address without a coordinated, multiparty effort.

“Environmental challenges like climate change, overfishing, the acidification of our oceans, air pollution — none of these challenges respect international borders,” said Kerry. “They injure us all, however. They affect people everywhere.”

In speaking about the new air quality monitoring program, Kerry said the goal is to increase awareness of the health risks of outdoor air pollution as well as to create partnerships on air quality with other nations. He said technical experts from the U.S., with experience monitoring, improving, and meeting air quality standards, will help build this capacity out through training and exchanges with host governments.

The program is focused on a type of air pollution known as particulate matter (PM); specifically the smallest and most toxic form, PM 2.5, which is 2.5 micrometers in diameter or less, about 1/30th the diameter of a human hair. When inhaled these tiny particles can pass through the respiratory tract all the way into the lungs. On top of asthma, studies have linked extended exposure to PM 2.5 to heart disease, diabetes, autoimmune disease, lupus, and other ailments.

According to the World Health Organization, in 2012 around seven million people died from exposure to air pollution with outdoor air pollution (ambient air pollution) responsible for just over half of these deaths. A majority of these outdoor air pollution-related deaths occurred in South Asia and East Asia, which will be the initial focus of the new monitoring program.

U.S. embassies in China have been monitoring air pollution for several years as heavily urbanized and industrialized cities like Beijing struggle through crippling bouts of air pollution that have caused schools to close and severely limited outdoor activity.

Last year, the northeastern capital city of Harbin saw its PM 2.5 index reach 1,000 — far above the 300 which is considered hazardous and the WHO-recommended daily level of no more than 20. One study found that this severe pollution has slashed an average of five-and-a-half years from the life expectancy in northern China as toxic air has led to higher rates of stroke, heart disease, and cancer.

China has been making a very public push to confront growing concern over air pollution, including publishing a list of its 10 worst — and best — cities for air pollution each month. China’s Health Ministry also has plans to set up a national network within five years to provide a way of monitoring the long-term impact of chronic air pollution on human health.

With air pollution monitoring on the rise in China, India — which has some of the most polluted cities in the world — is next up for the State Department and EPA program, with monitoring operations planned in the next few months.

The air pollution situation is in many ways more acute in India than China as the country is less well situated to pursue low-carbon, clean development. More than 300 million Indians still do not have access to electricity, and by 2017, it is predicted India will outpace China in economic growth. A recent World Health Organization report found that India has 13 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world with the capital, Delhi, being the most polluted of all. The WHO report found that Delhi had six times the level of airborne particulate matter considered safe, but a recent on-the-ground investigation found that the levels could be up to eight times higher in heavily trafficked corridors.

Kerry said in the coming months the program will expand to Vietnam, Mongolia, and other countries.