With over one million acres burned by wildfire in California this year, air pollution is on the mind of many Americans. In the United States, thanks to decades of work by the government, universities, industry, and communities, severe air pollution levels like the kind that result from wildfires are rare. Yet in many areas of the world, poor air quality is the norm for months on end, causing millions of deaths and billions of dollars in economic impact every year.
Poor air quality is also a significant concern for Department of State personnel, who serve in over 190 countries. An estimated 84 percent of overseas U.S. diplomatic posts experience ambient air quality that is worse than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) annual air quality standard for fine particulate matter. With a chronic global shortage of reliable air quality data and analysis, Department and local communities are ill-equipped in many locations to implement standardized management frameworks, prioritize mitigation actions, and respond to changing conditions.
Eager to help, many of the same U.S. air quality experts that worked to make the United States an air quality success story are volunteering 10-20 hours per month through the Department of State Global Air Quality Fellowship. Under the auspices of the fellowship, the Department of State and the EPA seek candidates to volunteer for one year of collaborative technical and/or policy support for an “adopted” U.S. embassy or consulate implementing an air quality monitoring program overseas. The program has grown rapidly since its launch in 2016, with more than 50 posts matched with fellows from every corner of the United States last year.
The fellows work on a wide variety of projects remotely. Many fellows helped U.S. diplomatic posts leverage the data from their onsite regulatory-grade air quality monitors. These monitors are part of the Department’s network of over 30 monitors worldwide, many of which help provide data in areas where it is otherwise unavailable.
As the the Ambient Air Monitoring Team Leader for EPA Region 1 (New England), Robert Judge used his 30 years of air quality experience to build capacity around air quality monitoring at U.S. Embassy Lima. He conducted analysis of the data from the embassy’s onsite monitor and provided insight into the differences between the American and Peruvian air quality standards.
Anondo Mukherjee, who served as a fellow while a graduate student at University of Colorado, analyzed the two years of data from the U.S. Embassy Dhaka’s air quality monitor. His work helped identify air pollution trends over time. He also lent support to other U.S. diplomatic posts by leveraging satellite data to produce models of local air pollution.
Even where there are local monitoring networks, there is still work to be done. Ana Y.C. Tai, a fellow who works for the State of Washington, supported U.S. Embassy Bangkok in building a partnership to obtain data from Thailand’s monitoring network and display it in the EPA Air Quality Index format. This familiar display will, once implemented, help the embassy community and American visitors and residents in Thailand understand current air quality conditions more easily.
Tommy Flynn, a program manager with the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, provided insights on ozone monitoring networks to the U.S. consulate in São Paulo, Brazil, and supported the exchange of best practices and ideas with the local government.
Rick Osa, the technical director for a global environmental consulting company, gave a series of webinars for U.S. Embassy Seoul and local host government partners on health effects from air pollution, managing ozone, and low cost sensors. He will also give a presentation regarding the management and communication of air pollution risks at the 9th World Air Forum in Seoul in October.
In areas where data are largely unavailable, fellows have been providing valuable assistance. Michael Goldstein, a meteorologist in the Shelby County Health Department in Memphis, Tennessee, worked with U.S. Embassy Manila to conduct analysis on the impact of weather on air quality conditions. His analysis indicated that man-made factors, including transportation and industrial activities, had a larger influence on air quality than did weather conditions, such as wind and humidity. This information helped the Embassy shape the work plan for an incoming Embassy Science Fellow from the EPA, who will spend several months at post to help address the primary driver of Metro Manila’s poor air quality: transportation emissions.
As these examples demonstrate, fellows have been helping Department personnel and partner institutions and governments around the world. Another important outcome is that the work also helps us back here in the United States increase our understanding of air pollution. Learning about other countries’ best practices in health and behavior change messaging has also provided insights to fellows who live and work in areas of the United States where wildfires are an increasing menace.
The next round of fellowship applications are open. U.S. air quality experts are invited to learn more and apply using our simple online form. Applications are due by October 15, 2018.
About the Author: Caroline D’Angelo directs the Department’s air quality monitoring and fellows programs. She is based in the Office of Management Policy, Rightsizing, and Innovation (M/PRI).