What Are You Breathing Today?

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picture-32Yesterday I wrote about how more and better downloadable data on toxics in our neighborhoods will be coming our way soon from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), thanks to the reinstatement of tougher standards for the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI).

But it’s important to remember that even a tougher TRI program has an obvious severe limitation–it relies on facilities reporting on their own pollution. In other words, let’s say the Sunlight Foundation staffers, in our furious blogging every day, produced a bunch of nasty formaldehyde as a byproduct. If we we produced a certain amount, we’d have to fill out paperwork and file it with the EPA, and that would go into the TRI database. Self-reporting has its limits, as anybody who has ever met a toddler knows.

Another treasure trove of information over at the EPA is the Air Quality Systems (AQS) database, which it creates from thousands of actual monitors placed all over the country that measure the amount of certain toxic chemicals in the air, required under the Clean Air Act. This is the way the agency monitors ozone, lead, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, particulates, and sulfur dioxide. There’s also another database, the National Emissions Inventory, which contains estimates on pollutants and where they are coming from, compiled from a variety of sources, such as state and local governments and the Federal Highway Administration.

What can you do with all these data? Well, for years, the American Lung Association has issued an annual report grading counties and cities for how badly they are polluted. In fact, the group is poised to release the next version of this report on April 29. This version will include a website, www.stateoftheair.org, where visitors can look up how their own communities’ score.

But in this era these data could go a lot further. The EPA is making efforts to make the information more user friendly. This web page allows users to view pollutants on Google Earth.  And over here, at www.airnow.gov, EPA is working with several other agencies to produce a nifty mashup map that lets you see what air quality is like for about 300 U.S. cities.

There’s a lot that remains clunky, however, for those of us who don’t have advanced degrees in pollutionology. It takes a long time and a lot of clicking around at the section of the EPA’s website devoted to air quality data to figure out where to find what. And then the information provided is not always written in plain English.

Surely there are talented programmers out there who could mash up this information in new, even more accessible ways. And of course intrepid reporters and bloggers who can use this information to do detailed investigations about not just how polluted their neighborhoods are, but where it’s coming from. The auto, utility, and chemical industries, some of those that contribute to air pollution, all spend copious amount so of cash on lobbying Congress and campaign contributions, often for weaker air quality standards.

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