Report Finds EPA Air Quality Network Fails to Measure Air Pollution

Graphic: Annabel Driussi for Our Daily Planet

By Amy Lupica, ODP Contributing Writer

A special investigative report from Reuters found that U.S. air monitors routinely miss pollution and even events as impactful as a refinery explosion. Data examined by Reuters showed that the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) nationwide network of 3,900 monitoring devices failed to properly monitor day-to-day air quality risks and identified no risks at all from the 10 largest refinery explosions in the last decade. The report also found that many local, community-based monitoring efforts detected pollution spikes that the EPA network missed.

Why This Matters: We hate to rain on EPA’s birthday celebration but the agency needs to fix this monitoring system.  Without accurate baseline measurements of air quality, people are exposed to more pollutants than they know, and industrial projects are Ok’d without an understanding of the damage they may cause. The data from the system informs the Air Quality Index that many Americans, especially those with respiratory conditions like asthma, use to determine whether to go out or stay in. Air pollution, especially from refineries, can release carcinogens and other damaging particles into the air and those exposed can often suffer from heart disease, cancer, and neurological problems as a result. Data collected by the network also informs industrial development decisions made under the National Ambient Air Quality Standard and environmental policy.

An Outdated System

Experts and regulators agree that the network’s problems are wide and varied. The responsibility for the operation and maintenance of monitors is shared by both the federal government and local administrations. The program, which began in the 1970s, was launched piece by piece, primarily to monitor smog, ozone depletion, and acid rain. As industrial hazards and disasters like wildfires became more present dangers, the system struggled to adapt. An EPA audit released in 2015 found that nearly half of the country’s monitors did not meet federal standards. Despite its own report, the EPA told Reuters, “We are confident that the monitoring network provides data that allows decision-makers – states, public health officials, etc. – to make informed decisions on public health.” Huh?

Over the past 5 years, the number of government air quality monitors has decreased by 4% as state and local agencies cut funding. Federal grants to local air quality agencies haven’t increased in 15 years, leading many local activist and environmentalist groups to fill in the gaps. One community project in New York City has placed up to 150 monitors in the last 10 years; the EPA network has less than 30 monitors in NYC.

Shady Practices

These community projects across the country consistently find more particulates in the air than the EPA network. In 2017, they found particulate matter levels of up to 2,430 micrograms per cubic meter, 40 times higher than the World Health Organization’s recommended level. The nearest government monitors recorded 985 micrograms per cubic meter. Researchers later discovered this was because the monitors were programmed to record nothing higher than 985 micrograms.

Researchers found that even when EPA monitors found high levels of pollution, the EPA often threw away those numbers to clear the way for industry. The Trump administration has fast-tracked the re-designation of many polluted areas to carry out its pro-industry agenda, even redrawing maps to exclude certain air monitors. Since 2017, the administration has re-designated 54 areas previously out of compliance with pollution standards. A study led by Corbett Grainger, a University of Madison-Wisconsin environmental economics professor, also found that when given the chance, state regulators placed monitors in cleaner areas, to strategically prevent them from measuring pollution caused by industry.

These practices feel eerily similar to Trump’s reasoning that, in order to make COVID numbers drop, testing should decrease. By avoiding measuring air quality where it matters, The Trump administration can deny that Air Quality remains a problem in the United States. During his recently failed re-election campaign, Trump declared that America had the world’s cleanest air, but an annual study from Yale placed the nation’s air quality in 16th place globally.


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