Sense of Air

From a pollution-sensing bench to high tech monitoring devices, EPA researchers in Research Triangle Park are at the forefront of monitoring the nation’s air quality.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK — Air is one of those things we just don’t think about!

It’s easy to understand why. Air is clear. It’s transparent. It is all around us yet you can’t see it. And unless you are exercising and breathing hard, you pretty much take air for granted.

But think of air in another way. That’s because air is also personal. Depending where you are, air quality varies from place to place. Air is cleaner in some areas and it is more polluted in others.

“The good news is that the vast majority of the time the air is clear and we see it being clear,” explains Ron Williams, Senior Research Chemist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “But in reality, air always has substantive materials in it, including particles, vapors, and aerosols we are interested in.”

Those are just some of the particles and gases monitored throughout the country by the Air Quality Assessment Division of the EPA. The agency runs the nation’s air monitoring program out of its labs in Research Triangle Park.

“We believe that good science brings good policy,” says Chet Weyland, Director of the EPA's Air Quality Assessment Division. “We really enjoy the science and obviously monitoring is a key piece of that science.”

Not far from the EPA’s offices in RTP sits a block of white buildings. Some are made with concrete blocks while others appear to be reconfigured steel shipping containers. All of the structures have various monitors and antennas sticking out of them.

This is one of 4,500 air quality monitoring stations scattered around the country. Except for this station, all of them are owned and operated by state and local governments but funded by the EPA. The research is guided from RTP. That includes providing the general directions on how local and state officials should conduct the air monitoring so it will match federal standards.

A look inside the station reveals it is packed with instruments measuring ozone and other pollutants covered under the Clean Air Act. The data is analyzed and used to issue air quality warnings and make regulatory decisions.

“We’re required to evaluate air quality standards every five years, because new studies come out and show the different impacts of air quality on health,” explains Weyland. “So I think our jobs never end because science never ends, and we’re always learning new things and we always evaluate the standards on an ongoing basis.”

That’s why EPA researchers are focusing on emerging technologies. 

“These are just some of the new technologies for monitoring air quality that are on the market,” adds Williams, as he goes through a lab with about a dozen monitoring devices of all shapes, sizes, and colors sitting on a table.

None of the instruments meet federal regulatory standards; they couldn’t be used to monitor compliance with federal clean air standards. But that’s not the primary use for these devices. The EPA is evaluating the instruments to make sure they are precise enough to allow individuals, schools or community groups to monitor the air around them. 

“Technology will allow us to collect more data, in a much more inexpensive way and in more locations,” says Williams. “We’re also looking at how the devices could be used by citizen scientists to supplement larger research programs.”

No one argues the more data the better when it comes to monitoring air quality. However data is useless if it can’t be shared and studied. So in another building on the EPA’s campus, you find computer programmers working on the next evolution of the EPA’s citizen air monitoring program. It’s called RETIGO — short for Real Time Geospatial Data Viewer. It allows citizens to upload air quality data they’ve collected and then examine and analyze the findings. Click here to visit the site.

“Say you’re interested in exercising outside and since you are sensitive to changes in air quality, you want to make sure your air is safe,” says Heidi Paulsen, Environmental Modeling and Visualization Program Manager for the EPA. “This allows you to explore your region and if you live near a highway you’ll notice the air near the highway isn’t good but it improves as you move into the park. So you might decide to go out and take the trail in the park and not near the highway.”

In short, the thinking these days at the EPA is that there is a wide range of technical approaches and the more that citizens can be empowered to monitor the air around them, the better.

“Certainly the air quality measurements we take for regulatory purposes have to be of the highest standards, and those are set by law and there are specific mechanisms, instrumentation and parameters that have to be applied to collect that data,” says Williams. “But we want to help citizens monitor their own surroundings because that way they have a vested interest in the environment, in learning about the environment, and if we can collect more data, cheaper and find more ways to apply it, that’s a value to the American public.”

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