A low-profile U.S. Environmental Protection Agency program has created an intriguing precedent that may have a ripple effect in regulatory politics.
The EPA has been quietly posting on the Internet the results of "air toxics ambient monitoring" at 46 locations—all schools—around the country. What's being measured varies from site to site, based partly on "the best available information about the pollution sources in the area," meaning local industry. In Marietta, Ohio, items of interest are manganese and lead; in Reading, Pa., there's a single measurement: nanograms of airborne chromium per cubic meter.
Such figures, of course, can be politically sensitive. A recent wrangle in Frisco, Texas, partly driven by local emissions data, prompted Exide Technologies Inc. to cancel expansion of its secondary lead smelter there (AMM, Oct. 29). In that situation, local statistics were obtained by city officials from the Texas environmental agency and publicized.
Texas, interestingly, is participating in the EPA's school air program in a very guarded way. Five of the agency's 58 active measurement sites are in Texas but none of the Texas data shows up on the EPA Web site. Seven schools outside Texas also are blanked out.
To help citizens assess the information, each measured item is accompanied by an informal threshold figure. Below that is OK; above it, the "EPA will analyze the potential for health concerns from long-term exposure after monitoring is complete."
As of mid-November, no readings above any of those thresholds could be found on the EPA Web site. Measurements more than halfway to a threshold could be found for manganese in Marietta, Ga., (one such reading out of four measurements) and consistently in Enterprise, Miss., for acrolein, an industrial chemical.
The data from the schools initiative aren't available in real time. "These monitors sample air for various 24-hour periods, collecting samples on filters or in canisters," EPA press officer Dave Ryan said. "(They) have to be manually removed and sent to a laboratory for analysis."
By mid-November, Ryan said, the EPA had looked at more than 36,000 data points for the school air program. "We are posting preliminary data after they have been quality assured by staff."
For many types of measurements, the only thing automatic is a timer on a sort of vacuum cleaner. Someone visits the device, inserts a filter and presets the motor to suck air during a particular 24-hour period.
Smog-related air quality data are collected in real time nationwide, with hourly readings on the Web. Breakdowns can be found for levels of airborne grit, ozone, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide. But assessing categories of particles is much more complicated.
"There isn't a method to measure lead directly in the monitor itself," said Cassie McMahon, an air quality specialist with the state of Minnesota. "You'd have to find a way to say, of all those particulates, how much lead is actually in there. I don't think that method actually exists."
Ryan said the monitors used in the nationwide lead monitoring network must be visited periodically, typically several times per week. During those visits, filters are retrieved (and replaced) for shipment to laboratories to provide precise levels of air pollutants under study, he said, so tracking lead or chromium requires people shuttling between neighborhood and laboratory.
One of the environmental differences between the Bush and Obama administrations was whether local monitoring is desirable close by lead smelters emitting 0.5 tonne or 1 tonne a year of that metal. Bush's policy-makers chose the higher threshold, requiring coverage of 87 sites rather than 203.
EPA administrator Lisa P. Jackson said in July that the lower reference point probably will be substituted, although a formal proposal to increase the number of monitors hasn't been issued yet. The cost of instituting such labor-intensive monitoring on a permanent basis may be a factor.
The EPA acknowledges that its school air program resulted partly from a data-driven series of reports by USA Today. Paradoxically, almost none of the newspaper's statistics was on air quality. What the project did was marry a large amount of self-reported corporate data on industrial emissions, which is required by federal law, with an EPA model for geographical impact.
USA Today ended up with an air toxicity ranking for nearly 128,000 schools throughout the United States. A database from the project was placed on the Web, but the search engine doesn't allow a visitor to ask for the 10 worst schools in the country. However, serendipity enabled AMM to stumble on the second-worst, an intermediate school in Houston. (To view that school's summary, type smokestack/school/89908 into Google.)
Atop the school's USA Today record: "One of 127,809 schools have worse air." That oracular statement, surmising worrisome exposure to nickel and manganese, has to be balanced with the reality of the newspaper having actual air quality readings for 95 schools nationwide.
Another issue, of course, is that even an 80-percent nationwide reduction in pollution would still leave some site having second-worst air quality out of 127,809 schools. A ranking doesn't answer the question: How bad is it?
With all its flaws, the USA Today project whets the appetite to replace surmise with real data. And we may be approaching the day when neighborhood activists will go on the Web to get a real-time reading on local pollutants.
For some air toxics, Ryan said that automated options exist for pulling in measurements, but they are not being used in the school air program because of the EPA's aggressive time-line in monitoring air toxics at the schools. And even for lead, "automated samplers that are currently commercially available are not sensitive enough for purposes of measuring lead in the outdoor air. The EPA is working with equipment manufacturers to possibly develop such approaches in the future," he said.