With colossal wildfires in the Amazon, California, and Australia dominating headlines over the last several months, air quality is a key concern of the global public. Yet in many areas of the world, severe air pollution is the norm, causing millions of deaths and costing trillions of dollars every year.
Poor air quality is also a significant concern for Department of State personnel, who serve in over 190 countries. Over 80 % of overseas U.S. diplomatic posts experience air quality that is worse than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) standards. With a chronic global shortage of reliable air quality data and analysis, Department personnel and local communities are ill-equipped in many locations to implement science-based, standardized management frameworks; prioritize actions to protect human health; and anticipate changing conditions.
Despite the fires in California, the United States rarely has severe air pollution events, thanks to decades of work by the government, universities, industry, and communities. Eager to help, many of those same U.S. air quality experts who have driven success here are volunteering 10-20 hours per month through the Department of State Air Quality Fellowship to encourage success overseas. The program has grown rapidly since its launch in 2016 and has now matched more than 100 fellows from the United States with dozens of U.S. embassies and consulates overseas. Fellows work on a wide variety of projects, from helping 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 60 monitors worldwide, many of which help provide data in areas where it is otherwise unavailable.
Ranil Dhammapala, an atmospheric scientist with the Washington State Department of Ecology’s Air Quality Program, has applied his fellowship-related knowledge worldwide throughout his 2 -year affiliation with the program. Last November, Dhammapala attended the Better Air Quality conference in Borneo, where he presented analyzing air quality data from 29 U.S. embassies and consulates. He created site-specific recommendations to minimize pollution exposure. In May, Dhammapala was a speaker and participant at the first Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs air quality conference in Kathmandu, Nepal, where he was able to discuss the contributions of air quality fellows on a global scale. Dhammapala emphasizes that for him, the value of the Fellowship is the ability to foster connections between technical expertise garnered here in the United States with the on-the-ground needs overseas.
Many fellows are working to promote air quality awareness in areas where air pollution is considered a weather phenomenon. Gabriel Filippelli, an earth science professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, is a fellow with the Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. In 2019, the Embassy and consulates in Pakistan installed air quality monitors and started publishing the data on AirNow. Prior to the installation, Filippelli visited Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad to discuss air quality with American and Pakistani stakeholders including the Parliamentary Council, the National Youth Environmental Conference, the Pakistan EPA, the Pakistan NIH, and several non-governmental groups. Following his visit, the Embassy produced a to help foster understanding of air quality in the region.
A current priority for the Department of State and for the global community is to advance the science behind lower-cost air quality sensors. Philip Hopke, adjunct professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, applies his knowledge as a fellow in Yerevan, Armenia. He worked with the embassy on deploying a few lower-cost sensors and evaluating the data. His work found that while the low cost sensors may be overestimating particulate matter in Yerevan, air quality is still an issue.
As these examples demonstrate, fellows have been helping Department personnel and partner institutions and governments around the world. 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 provided insights to fellows who live and work in areas of the United States where wildfires are an increasing menace.
About the Authors: Stephanie Christel Meredith, an Eco-Management Analyst, and Amanda Cabot, an intern in the Virtual Student Federal Service, with the Greening Diplomacy Initiative in the Office of Management Strategy and Solutions