In a year where global health has been at the forefront of people’s minds, air pollution has remained a topic of conversation, especially as pandemic lockdowns temporarily cleared skies in some areas for the first time in decades. The World Health Organization estimates that approximately 4.2 million deaths a year are due to air pollution. From an economic standpoint, it’s estimated that air pollution costs the U.S. roughly five percent of its yearly gross domestic product.
Poor air quality is of particular concern for the tens of thousands of U.S. government personnel and their families who serve in over 190 countries abroad. Over 80 percent of overseas U.S. diplomatic posts experience air quality worse than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) annual standards. However, many of these locations lack access to reliable data, leaving Department personnel ill-equipped to implement science-based, standardized management practices to reduce their exposure.
The United States has drastically improved its air quality over the past five decades since the passage of the Clean Air Act. With air quality experts serving at municipal, state, and federal levels, as well as conducting research in university settings, there is a wealth of information to draw upon to support U.S. embassies and other countries in their addressing their air quality concerns.
The State Department is lucky enough to have some of these experts volunteer 10-20 hours per month as Air Quality Fellows. The program was started in 2016 by the Greening Diplomacy Initiative (GDI) in the Office of Management Strategy and Solutions (M/SS). To date, the Air Quality Fellowship has matched over 100 fellows with embassies and consulates. Air quality experts from the United States have volunteered more than 17,000 hours over the program’s first four years. Former Jefferson Science Fellow Dr. John Kerekes, who supported the program during his fellowship at the Department, said “the expertise provided by these volunteers greatly enhances the value of the Department’s air quality monitoring program to the global community and embassies and consulates, while giving the Fellows a rewarding experience.”
Fellows’ projects have included evaluating indoor and outdoor air quality data, evaluating COVID-19 shutdown impacts on air pollution, speaking in internal and external events, and working with host governments. While Fellows’ projects looked a little different this year due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, this did not stop many of them from bringing virtual expertise to embassies and consulates and our international partners around the globe.
Dr. Jay Turner, a professor from Washington University in St. Louis, worked with U.S. Embassy Seoul and U.S. Embassy Tashkent to produce and participate in webinars on local air quality. Together with Embassy Seoul, he produced a series of four webinars for local and federal governments and South Korean air quality experts on topics such as air quality and COVID-19, health impacts of PM2.5 exposure, air quality trends, and energy sources and air pollution. Dr. Turner also worked with Embassy Tashkent to do an internal virtual town hall and webinars with the Uzbek Ambient Monitoring Agency and the Zamin Foundation, a local environmental NGO.
Some Fellows were working to promote air quality awareness in areas with little to no previous knowledge of the severity of the problem. Air pollution in Yerevan has dramatically worsened in recent years and has become a leading source of concern for the Embassy community. This problem is exacerbated during the winter as a blanket of smog covers the city for months. Previously, there were no publicly available air monitoring devices in Yerevan and they lacked any data. With the assistance of Dr. Phil Hopke of Clarkson University, the Embassy installed three inexpensive air quality sensors. Readings from the sensors validated long-held concerns as the Air Quality Index (AQI) regularly exceeded healthy levels during the winter months and demonstrated that a reference-grade monitor was needed to increase the availability of reliable data.
Other Fellows were able to study the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on air quality. Charles Sams, an air program manager with the U.S. Forest Service, is studying air quality data and weather patterns in Taiwan to better understand how industrial and traffic slowdown associated with COVID-19 may have influenced air quality.
As these examples demonstrate, Air Quality Fellows have been helping Department personnel, partner institutions, and governments around the world tackle the challenge of air pollution despite the challenges of COVID-19. Their work also helps us back here in the U.S. to learn about other countries’ best practices in air quality health and safety management.
The next round of fellowship applications is open for applications. U.S. air quality experts are invited to learn more and apply here. Applications are due by June 11, 2021.
About the Author: Kaela Cote-Stemmermann is a communications advisor in the Front Office of the Office of Management Strategy and Solutions at the U.S. Department of State.