Lagos, Nigeria, is one of the few megacities in the world without an air quality monitoring system. One of the State Department’s Virtual Air Quality Fellows, Dr. Jimmy Adekoke, Professor at the University of Missouri Kansas City, and Economic Specialist Olivette Smith from the U.S. Consulate in Lagos, wanted to change that. The monitor at the U.S. consulate is the only reliable source for air pollution data in the area. Lagos’ air is regularly plagued with fine particle pollution due to industrial operations and vehicle traffic in the densely populated city. Recently, those of us on the East Coast of the United States experienced something similar, with the worst air pollution in decades due to wildfire smoke plumes. Thankfully, this is not a typical experience for most of the United States, but it is for Lagos occasionally. And in many parts of the world where our diplomats currently serve, extreme air pollution levels are common.
In Lagos, Dr. Adekoke and Ms. Smith created and co-chaired an Air Quality Technical Working Group, which collaborates with the Lagos State Environmental Protection Agency (LASEPA) to improve air quality awareness and mitigate air pollution challenges in Lagos and surrounding neighborhoods. Dr. Adekoke also plans to expand the air quality monitoring in Lagos State this year by working with the University of Lagos to install low-cost air quality sensors. Because of their successes and drive to improve air quality, a second Air Quality Fellow, Dr. Christopher Weaver of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has been paired with the U.S. Consulate in Lagos to continue and expand the work.
Dr. Adekoke and Dr. Weaver are part of the 2023 class of virtual air quality fellows, run by the Office of Management Strategy and Solutions (M/SS) Greening Diplomacy team. This year, there are 50 fellows from across the United States. The fellows bring expertise drawing on the decades of air pollution research, monitoring, and mitigation efforts by the United States following the signing of the Clean Air Act to 55 partner posts around the world.
Thousands of U.S. government personnel and their families serving around the world routinely experience the equivalent of what we experienced across the U.S. eastern seaboard in June. Over 80 percent of overseas U.S. diplomatic posts experience annual average particulate air pollution levels that are higher than the health-based standard set in the United States. Yet many of these locations lack access to reliable on the ground data. This leaves Department posts and personnel ill-equipped to implement science-based, standardized management practices, or personal actions to reduce their exposure. Additionally, without reliable data, host countries may not even be fully aware of the dangerous air pollution levels they may be experiencing. The fellows have been vital to improving understanding for Department personnel and their host communities.
In Bishkek, Kyrgyz Republic, Fellow Ryan Schmedding, a PhD candidate at McGill University, and Economic Officer Natalia Sitnikov have hosted virtual lunch seminars with U.S. diplomats, their families, and local embassy staff regarding environmental issues, including the basics of air quality science and how to use the data from post’s air quality monitor to reduce exposure to pollution. Mr. Schmedding has visited Bishkek twice where he guest-lectured at the American University of Central Asia, presented to local youth groups, and participated in television and radio interviews. He also served as an external reviewer for UN Environment Programme’s 80-page report on air quality in Bishkek.
Similar to what’s happening in Lagos, the work of Embassy Bishkek has spurred interest in more data and work on air pollution in the region. A State Department-funded project has installed an additional 37 low-cost sensors throughout the Kyrgyz Republic, and the Embassy is working with the Ministry of Health to adopt an air quality index to describe and communicate exposure risk in a country that has some of the worst seasonal air quality in the world.
These partnerships are exciting to see, as the United States has lessons learned to share from its successes over the past 50 years in reducing air pollution levels, thanks in large part to the Clean Air Act. There is not a moment to waste as approximately 7-10 million premature deaths occur globally each year due to air pollution, and a changing climate could make the problem even worse. The virtual air quality fellows program is just one of the State Department’s programs that work to utilize the lessons learned through the air pollution successes in the United States to protect the health of its personnel abroad and promote national and subnational diplomacy.
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About the Author: Calvin Arter is an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow in the Greening Diplomacy Initiative in the Office of Management Strategy and Solutions.