We’ve been hearing a lot about how great our air quality is – how it’s cleaner than it has been in decades, how we’ve made great strides in reducing smog and pollution – and it’s true that we’ve made progress in this area, but that doesn’t mean we’re doing as well as has been reported.
The US’s network of about 3,900 air monitoring devices across the country routinely miss “major toxic releases and day-to-day pollution dangers,” according to a Reuters report after examining data from the EPA.
Refinery explosions and leaks have often been missed by the monitoring devices, which instead report that the air is clean, either because the monitors have been placed upwind of where the explosions/leaks occurred or because there were no monitors at the locations, making it impossible to measure the level of pollution.
About one third of all Americans live in counties that have no EPA pollution monitors for small particle pollution, per a Reuters special report. https://www.reuters.com/article/usa-pollution-airmonitors-specialreport/special-report-u-s-air-monitors-routinely-miss-pollution-even-refinery-explosions-idUSKBN28B4RT
When a refinery caught fire in Richmond, CA, in 2012, 15,000 people sought treatment after being exposed to clouds of particulate matter. But the government monitor in place had been turned off to save money and therefore recorded no problems with air quality.
Monitors have also been programmed to record only so much pollution, with any amount above that level not recorded. Further, there’s a certain amount of discretion as to where the monitors should be placed. Sometimes state regulators put monitors in cleaner areas or even allow the companies being monitored to select where the monitors should be placed.
In addition, funding for EPA monitoring has been reduced during the Trump presidency, resulting in a reduction in the amount of federal monitors around the country. This has forced local communities to step up and install monitors of their own to determine how much pollution their citizens are enduring.
So what we’re faced with is a system that simply can’t capture the reality on the ground. Most of us don’t know how polluted our air is because 1) there are no monitors in our area, or 2) the monitors in our area have deliberately been placed in clean areas to give false readings of the total quality of our air, or 3) the monitors in our area have been set up to record only certain data, thereby missing out on the actual level of pollution we face.
Seems like this is the kind of thing we might want to know about, given that the WHO estimates that 4.2 million people globally die each year due to conditions caused by ambient (outdoor) air pollution.