A recent study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that long-term exposure to even slightly elevated levels of air pollution can be linked to accelerated development of lung damage. In fact, it can cause the same changes in lungs that lead to emphysema, even among people who have never smoked.
The study was published just two months after the highly-publicized emergency in Mexico City in which nearby wildfires caused air quality to deteriorate to levels that threatened human health. The air quality was so bad there that authorities closed the local schools and urged residents to stay indoors.
Governmental agencies are working harder than ever to implement regulations that will help to minimize the release of pollutants and toxins into the air and keep their citizens safe from the damaging effects of fine particulate matter. Regulatory efforts include identifying and categorizing air pollutants, setting qualified data criteria for acceptable emissions levels, and dictating necessary mitigation methods and reporting formats. They are enforced through the work of partners that closely monitor emissions and ensure compliance. To measure particulate matter properly, they use highly advanced technology capable of continually measuring these microscopic particles, which are about 30-times smaller than a human hair.
In Mexico City, the measurement was 158 micrograms per cubic meter of air. For reference, the World Health Organization recommends a daily mean air quality guideline of below 25 micrograms.
An early warning system for air quality danger
It’s easy to think of poor air quality as a far-away concern. But particulate matter, which can enter the lungs and blood stream, and other air pollutants aren’t limited to cities such as Mexico City, Beijing or New Delhi. In fact, last summer, neighboring fires caused Seattle’s air quality to be so bad that its health effects on residents were compared to heavy smoking.
Fortunately, most of us are protected by a robust network of highly advanced air quality measurement instruments that serve as an early warning system for air quality danger. Some cities are more sophisticated than others, but generally we all benefit in some way from this unseen monitoring technology. Depending on where you live, the following criteria play some role in deciding where and how monitoring technology is used.
1. Location. Air quality stations should be located strategically throughout a city or region, so the measurement provides a true representation of the air that people are breathing.
2. Topography. Topography determines if more air quality stations should exist. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), cities with surface elevations above 1500 meters have atmospheric pressures which are approximately fifteen percent below pressures at sea level. Mexico City is a prime example of a location that requires a more extensive air quality network because it sits high above sea level where there's less oxygen and fuels don’t burn properly. The result is an increase in polluted air from soot that needs close monitoring.
3. Country-specific tendencies or practices. Parts of Europe, for example, have initiatives in place to generate power from renewable energy, much of which comes from burning wood. This, in turn, poses a human health risk that dictates additional monitoring requirements.
4. Instrument and equipment requirements. The stations must be equipped with the right solutions and the monitoring must be evaluated on a regular basis to make sure enough data about air quality is being produced. During the Mexico City crisis, government partners that manufacture particulate analyzers located throughout the city’s environmental monitoring network, reached out to local officials to ensure that the city didn’t have any additional monitoring requirements during the emergency.
5. Network Assessment. It’s important to routinely review network configurations to ensure appropriate coverage for any changing environmental conditions. This is especially true after a significant air quality event or emergency.
Improving environmental analysis with modern analytical solutions
Air quality is improving in many regions globally, but recent air quality emergencies caused by wildfires continue to demonstrate that vigilance to air quality monitoring is critically important to public health. Li Ganjie, a high-ranking environment official in China, recently reported that his country’s air quality significantly improved in key regions in 2018. This is evidence of China’s commitment to cleaner air which starts by having the right air quality monitoring system in place.
In the U.S., citizens can be assured that the air they breathe is being measured on a continuous basis. Although this monitoring can’t predict emergency air quality situations, it can provide government agencies with the information they need to help keep the public safe.
Accurately measuring the pollutants in the air is a crucial step toward cleaner air and forward-thinking companies are constantly innovating to produce modern instruments with lower detection limits, and better sensitivity and selectivity to help governments get the most reliable readings.