To a scientist, having new data to study is like a child having a new candy store to explore. With the EPA’s release of new air pollution rules, I’ve just learned of the Willy Wonka Factory of data in my field of study. The rules require new air quality monitors near major roadways in US cities. The new data will ultimately help us better protect from harmful air pollutants the millions of Americans who live, work, and play close to major roads.
Fighting the good fight for clean air
Now before I out-nerd myself thinking about data analysis possibilities, let me explain why this is so significant (and exciting). As we’ve written about before, federally funded scientific research is being cut left and right. Science is taking hits from both budget cuts and political attacks. This is precisely the reason why it is so notable that we are seeing the launch of a large research undertaking.
And the project was not approved easily. This is the culmination of nearly 10 years of efforts by scientists—both in and outside the EPA—as well as other agency officials and advocacy groups. Under the new rules, many major metropolitan areas will be required, starting next January, to place four air pollution monitors within about 160 feet of major roadways, and some smaller cities will be required to place fewer monitors. The monitors will measure nitrogen oxides, fine particulate matter (soot) and carbon monoxide. All told, more than 100 US cities will have new monitors installed when the program is fully implemented.
Air quality matters
As a graduate student and postdoc, I studied the relationship between outdoor air pollutants and health effects. Specifically, I looked at the challenges health scientists face in studying this relationship because of the limited number of air quality monitors we have in US cities.
Are these monitors representative of air pollution across a city? Do the monitors capture the air pollution levels that people actually breathe in? And what about exposure to air pollution close to its sources—like near roadways and power plants? Are these sources responsible for the health effects we see?
These are the questions my research and the work of many other scientists seek to answer.
Having new measurements near roadways will greatly enhance our ability to answer these important questions and ultimately they will help us determine what policies and practices are needed to better protect people from harmful levels of air pollution. The implementation of the new rules will be essential, of course. Monitors will need to be placed close enough to roadways to capture the ultrafine particulates associated with cars and trucks, but there is great potential here. Strong evidence already exists that emissions from today’s cars and trucks are harmful to people. As more people move to cities, near-roadway exposures will only increase. And importantly, some populations are more affected than others. Research suggests that children may be more susceptible to health effects from road emissions and certain populations, including low-income populations, are more likely to live close to major roads.
On behalf of breathers… thanks
In order to address issues like these, we need the tools to help us get there. Only if we continue to collect basic monitoring data, can we begin to solve the science-based challenges we face as a nation and as a globe. And as a recent poll indicated, many scientists agree, believing that long-term, continuous monitoring and data collection is the biggest gap in our funding of scientific research.
Kudos to the EPA for implementing this rule, kudos to the countless scientists who demonstrated the need for this data, and kudos to the individual decision makers who helped make this happen. As Bob Yuhnke, former director of the transportation program at the Environmental Defense Fund who was integral to efforts to enact this change, said in response, “On behalf of babies yet unborn, boomers with aging hearts and lungs, and breathers everywhere, many thanks.”