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Image of the New York City skyline with dangerous levels of pollution as seen on June 7, 2023. [Photo by Lauren Oliveri]

This week, severe air pollution in the Northeast United States made headlines around the world. Driven by early season wildfires in Canada, cities like New York and Washington, D.C., were exposed to hazardous air quality pollution, leading to some the worst regional air quality in decades for this part of the United States. With the smell of burning campfires and hazy, low visibility skies also came reports of health impacts – including scratchy throats, dripping noses, and wheezing. It is certainly a topic around the virtual and in person water coolers, and at State we released a notice to employees with how to reduce exposure.

As the lead for State’s global air quality monitoring program, I started an experiment in my home office with my low-cost air quality sensor and a room air cleaner to create a “clean room.” The results showed the benefits of what I tell people to do every day – close your windows and doors and run your room air cleaner – to help mitigate their exposure. In less than 30 minutes, the Air Quality Index (AQI) in my office dropped more than 60 points. My windows were closed to begin with, but this dropped air pollution in the room from 170 AQI to 108. Still not great, but a big improvement in a short amount of time. Over the next two hours, I watched it drop into moderate levels and stay there.

The author’s low-cost indoor air quality sensor’s readings after running their room air cleaner. [Photo by Stephanie Christel]
The author’s low-cost indoor air quality sensor’s readings after running their room air cleaner on June 8, 2023. [Photo by Stephanie Christel]

While most people in the United States don’t think about the threat of poor air quality on a daily basis, air pollution is the single greatest environmental health hazard around the world, estimated to cause around seven million premature deaths each year. New research is continually showing that even low levels of air pollution still have health impacts. However, in many places, there is little to no real-time, reliable, and high-quality air pollution data to guide people on when and how to protect their health.

Since 2008, the Department of State has installed air quality monitors at nearly 80 embassies and consulates overseas to provide U.S. government personnel and their families with the information they need to make informed health decisions. The Department’s air quality monitors are the same as those used in the United States by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state and local regulatory authorities. These monitors in the Northeast have provided us with real time air quality conditions and guidance from the EPA on how to lower exposure in these extreme and rapidly changing conditions. As a strong proponent of open data, the Department in partnership with the EPA, publishes air quality monitoring data publicly on both EPA AirNow and the Department’s own ZephAir mobile application to ensure accessibility. This also means the data are also available to everyone. A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science found that the Department’s embassy and consulate monitors led to increased local Google searches about air quality and indicated that the cities where we have post monitors had reduced pollution when compared to cities without monitors. Data help us make informed decisions – including longer term decisions like what technologies to invest in and what policies to pass, and shorter-term decisions such as whether schools should cancel outside recess, whether to exercise outdoors, or like me these past few days, whether to run our room air cleaner.

With climate change increasing drought prevalence and changing weather patterns, wildfires are expected to be more common, which could increase the frequency of wildfire smoke air pollution events around the world. This kind of air pollution is a much different problem to control than polluting emissions from factories, energy, or transportation and has significant transboundary impacts. Whether human-caused or resulting from naturally occurring events, air pollution can significantly disrupt lives. Knowledge about how air quality changes and science-based guidance on protective measures empowers people to make informed decisions about how to protect their health.  

About the Author: Stephanie Christel Meredith serves as the Global Air Quality Monitoring and Climate Resilience Lead in the State Department’s Greening Diplomacy Initiative in the Office of Management Strategy and Solutions.

U.S. Department of State

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