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
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
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
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
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
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
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.