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US Embassies to Monitor Air Quality

FILE -Buildings shrouded in heavy haze at Qingdao development zone, Shandong province, China.

How bad is the air in your city? The U.S. embassy may soon have the answer.

The State Department has announced plans to install air quality monitors at diplomatic posts and make the data publicly available. The program will begin in India, Vietnam and Mongolia.

The aim is to provide important health information for U.S. government employees overseas, as well as for locals. And U.S. officials said, it may help inspire citizens to call for change.

When an air quality monitor at the U.S. embassy in Beijing began reporting toxic pollution levels several years ago, “our hosts didn’t like it particularly,” said Secretary of State John Kerry.

In fact, China’s vice environmental minister called it an illegal and unacceptable interference in the country’s internal affairs.

But the information is available online, and after seeing how bad the problem is, Kerry said, Chinese “citizens are increasingly demanding action.”

Speaking at a ceremony in Washington Wednesday, Kerry noted that the Chinese government is responding. Last year Chinese Premier Li Keqiang “declared war” on pollution. “That’s a quote,” Kerry said.

Outdoor air pollution is responsible for 3.7 million annual deaths globally, according to the World Health Organization.

The program builds on a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) system that provides real-time air quality data on pollutants linked to a number of health problems.

“That information is so important,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said at the ceremony. “There are elderly people who should not be outside on certain days taking a walk. It threatens their ability to breathe. It threatens their ability to protect themselves if they’ve had cardiac problems. They want to know what air quality is outside.”

And that information is lacking in much of the world.

For example, University of Texas at Austin environmental engineering professor Joshua Apte said that on a major global air quality monitoring site, “there are nearly 2,000 monitors in China that are connected to the Web, and only about 30 in India, for countries of very similar population and with similar pollution problems.”

And there is a lot of room to expand the program, he added. “There may not be more than three or four [countries] in all of Africa that have got air pollution data available. And we know that there are air pollution problems in many African cities as well.”

McCarthy said U.S. officials “are not going to provide this information and walk away.” She said the U.S. has struggled with air pollution, and will offer technical help so “they can do what we have done to reduce the kind of air pollution that at one time was choking our cities,” and which still causes problems, she added.

In India, where the first monitor will be installed, Apte said awareness of the scale of problem is growing. But, he added, “there’s a saying in our field, which is, ‘you can’t manage what you don’t measure.’ You need to have a baseline to see how much you’ve improved.”

And that data can inform the public as well, he added. “They can demand change even when politicians don’t necessarily see it as in their own interest to do so.”

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    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.

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