GAO: More Information Needed to Understand the Health Risks From Air Pollution

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) says that air quality managers, researchers, and the public need more information to understand the health risks from air pollution.

Following several years of improvement, the amount of pollutants in the nation’s air has risen, according to economists at Carnegie Mellon who found that particulate matter air pollution fell 24% in the U.S. from 2009 to 2016, but it increased 5.5% the following two years. They say the increase was associated with almost 10,000 deaths in 2018 alone.

In 2019, about 70 million tons of pollution were emitted into the atmosphere in the United States.

The ambient air quality monitoring system is a national asset that provides standardized information for implementing the Clean Air Act and protecting public health. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state and local agencies cooperatively manage the system, with each playing different roles in design, operation, oversight, and funding. For example, EPA establishes minimum requirements for the system, and state and local agencies operate the monitors and report data to EPA.

During GAO’s review, officials from EPA and selected state and local agencies identified challenges related to sustaining the monitoring system. For example, they said that infrastructure is aging while annual EPA funding for state and local air quality management grants, which cover monitoring, has decreased by about 20 percent since 2004 after adjusting for inflation. GAO found inconsistencies in how EPA regions have addressed these challenges. 

The watchdog’s prior work has identified key characteristics of asset management, such as identifying needed resources and using quality data to manage infrastructure risks, which can help organizations optimize limited resources. By developing an asset management framework that includes such characteristics, GAO says EPA could better target limited resources toward the highest priorities for consistently sustaining the system. 

Ultimately, GAO found that air quality managers, researchers, and the public need additional information so they can better understand and address the health risks from air pollution. These needs include additional information on air toxics to understand health risks in key locations such as near industrial facilities; and how to use low-cost sensors to provide real-time, local-scale air quality information. 

GAO notes in its report that EPA and state and local agencies face persistent challenges meeting such air quality information needs, including challenges in understanding the performance of low-cost sensors. GAO illustrated this challenge by collecting air quality data from low-cost sensors and finding variability in their performance. 

EPA does have strategies aimed at better meeting the additional air quality information needs of managers, researchers, and the public, but GAO found the strategies are outdated and incomplete. For example, they do not clearly define roles for meeting additional information needs. 

GAO’s prior work on asset management suggests that a more strategic approach could help EPA modernize the system to better meet the additional information needs. By developing a modernization plan that aligns with leading practices for strategic planning and risk management, such as establishing modernization goals and roles, EPA could better ensure that the system meets the additional information needs of air quality managers, researchers, and the public and is positioned to protect public health.

GAO therefore recommends that EPA establishes an asset management framework for the monitoring system that includes key characteristics, and develops an air quality monitoring modernization plan that aligns with leading practices. EPA generally agreed with both recommendations and stated that, if fully implemented, they would add value and help sustain the national ambient air monitoring program. The agency also stated that, to assure success, it was important to engage stakeholders at the state, local, and tribal air monitoring agencies. 

The watchdog pointed out that technological improvements have led to smaller, more affordable air quality sensors and better satellite-based sensors in recent years and says these can help close gaps in pollution monitoring and research. For example, through more dense and widespread monitoring, these sensors may help pinpoint air pollution sources and hot spots and improve understanding of community exposure.

However, it found that sensors vary in performance, can be hard to interpret, and may not monitor key pollutants such as some air toxics.

Read the full report at GAO 

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Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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