INDIANAPOLIS — Every state wants to add more air pollution monitors to make sure residents aren’t breathing in harmful chemicals like lead or carbon monoxide, according to Angela Tin, a former US Environmental Protection Agency air quality specialist with 25 years of experience.
But in Indiana, the number of monitoring sites has declined significantly since 2008, when the EPA began requiring states to submit their ambient air monitoring network plans for federal review.
Fourteen years ago Indiana had 90 monitoring sites checking 180 pollution parameters. This year there are only 73 sites where fewer than 150 parameters are examined. This number will be reduced to 71 locations next year.
“It’s always a funding issue,” said Tin, who now serves as national executive director for clean air initiatives at the American Lung Association.
Over the next year, an influx of American Rescue Plan dollars will allow the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to upgrade 10 monitors to monitor air quality around the clock. These 10 currently only provide data every few days.
The new monitors will provide a better picture of fine particulate matter in the air, which is important for determining sources of pollution and associations between observed health impacts, according to IDEM’s monitoring plan.
IDEM is also exploring how new low-cost sensors can be integrated into the surveillance network to provide greater coverage over large areas, said Barry Sneed, a public information officer at the agency.
“The data provides IDEM staff with a useful planning and assessment tool, and provides the public with air quality data so they can better understand the air quality in their area,” he said in an email.
Indiana also received $200.00 this month through a competitive EPA grant to conduct increased air pollution monitoring in East Chicago to find out where contaminants are coming from and how to reduce them.
Overall, the EPA provided $53.4 million to 132 projects in 37 states to improve air surveillance in communities disproportionately affected by environmental and health concerns.
The federal funding boost comes after Indiana cut IDEM spending by about 20% from 2008 to 2018, according to the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit monitoring organization. The agency’s staff also shrank by around 15% over the same period.
Tin of the American Lung Association said funding always plays a role in how well states monitor air quality, but fewer test sites don’t necessarily mean less pollution data. New technology sometimes means testing sites can be combined to detect multiple contaminants, which could result in fewer sites, she said.
Other factors that determine the number of monitoring sites include data trends, population changes, new monitoring projects, site access issues, and site redundancies, according to the IDEM website.
Factories or companies that emit pollutants must monitor their outputs and report them to IDEM, which provides site-specific data. Ambient air monitoring, on the other hand, is ultimately designed to determine trends in air pollution across the state, according to Tin.
These trends show a mixture of progress and danger. Industrial air pollution has declined across the country, Tin said, but pollution from cars, trucks, planes and other modes of transportation is getting worse.
“Cars are everywhere, and they’re definitely cleaner than they used to be,” she said. “But the problem is that we have so many of them.”
Unlike coal-fired power plants, factories, or other industrial sites, the EPA doesn’t have the authority to regulate how people use their vehicles, making it a difficult problem to solve, Tin argued. That’s why the move to zero-emission vehicles is so important.0
“The EPA can’t force you to drive less,” she said. “They can’t force you to buy two or four cars, and they can’t force you to take the bus.”
Now that IDEM is adding more monitoring sites and installing upgrades at others, the state could have a clearer picture of evolving air pollution trends than it has in decades.
“Indiana has a robust outdoor air surveillance network, and IDEM continues to invest in improvements to air surveillance infrastructure,” agency spokesman Sneed said.