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The White House wants to spend $100 million to monitor the air we breathe

The White House wants to spend $100 million to monitor the air we breathe


The current federal air quality monitoring system is spread thin

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Smoke from Southern California wildfires blankets the LA Basin, obscuring downtown skyscrapers in a view from a closed Griffith Observatory.
Photo by Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Today, the White House proposed spending $100 million on a new program aimed at tracking air quality in some of the most polluted communities in the US. It was a tiny piece of President Joe Biden’s initial $1.5 trillion federal budget request for 2022, but it is representative of the new administration’s efforts to address legacies of environmental wreckage and injustice.

The air quality program would be funded through the Environmental Protection Agency, whose budget Biden seeks to raise by more than 21 percent. There aren’t many details yet on what the program might look like. But on top of tracking air quality, it would be able to notify people with “real-time data” in places with some of the worst pollution in the nation. The program would “hold polluters accountable,” according to the budget request.

The $100 million could go toward tackling some problematic gaps

The $100 million could go toward tackling some problematic gaps in how air quality is measured today. Those gaps can leave some communities, particularly low-income neighborhoods and people of color, more vulnerable to pollution than others. 

High-quality air quality monitors that researchers and regulators use have typically been too expensive to deploy widely. Because they can be spread thin in some regions, they can miss differences in pollution levels from neighborhood to neighborhood. From one block to another, pollution can actually grow as much as eight times thicker

Even where there are government air quality monitors, communities have been let down. These devices have failed spectacularly in the past, an investigation by Reuters revealed last year. When a refinery exploded in Philadelphia in 2019, the federal air quality index reported clean air in the city that day even though 700,000 pounds of hazardous chemicals had been released. That’s because the closest official air monitor was programmed to take measurements just one out of every six days, and it happened to miss the event. 

More affordable commercial air quality monitors have hit the market

Luckily, more affordable commercial air quality monitors have hit the market lately. That’s allowed a growing network of everyday people to track air quality from their homes. While these devices are not quite as sensitive as official monitors, they’ve begun to fill in the gaps when it comes to mapping pollution in the air. 

That’s come in particularly handy as more intense fire seasons have choked the air across much of the western US. For the first time last year, the EPA and US Forest Service included data from popular at-home air quality sensors in their fire and smoke map. The description of Biden’s proposed initiative as a “community” air quality monitoring and notification system, suggests that it might add to those efforts to merge citizen science with government data.

Today’s $1.5 trillion proposal from the White House includes funding requests for discretionary spending, which makes up about a third of the total federal budget. The Biden administration plans to announce a fuller budget proposal later this spring for the 2022 fiscal year that starts in October.