air toxics

Real Time Monitoring: A Game-Changer for Industrial Fence Line Communities

by Eduardo (Jay) Olaguer, PhD

I often hear people say they would like better tools to measure air pollution, especially in industrial fence line communities where environmental justice issues are paramount. The good news is that the capabilities are already here!

The techniques for detecting air toxics hot spots are not as developed as those used for studying ozone.  Conventional technologies (such as summa canisters, adsorption cartridges, and limited networks of stationary automated gas chromatographs) are like the traditional land lines compared to state-of-the-art capabilities which are more like today’s smart phones. New methods enable us not only to monitor ambient, or background, levels of air pollution in real time with tremendous accuracy, but they also link the often surprisingly large concentration peaks to specific emission points (such as individual flares or a small group of storage tanks) in industrial facilities.  While conventional tools bring a level of sophistication and improved accuracy to community air toxics monitoring efforts, the newer technologies enable communities to precisely quantify the transient emissions associated with industrial releases, all while operating outside facility fence lines!


Earlier this year, the Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC) led a multi-institution research campaign in three Houston Ship Channel communities with long histories of air pollution issues – Manchester, Milby Park, and Galena Park – to shed new light on those questions. These communities were chosen because they are located in the immediate vicinity of petrochemical facilities, including a major refinery, a rubber processing plant, several storage tank farms, crude oil and refined product pipelines, and rail yards and marine docks where chemical products are routinely loaded and unloaded, not to mention a large amount of truck traffic.

Our field experiment, known as the Benzene and other Toxics Exposure (BEE-TEX) Study, is very different from air pollution studies in the past.  The study focused on the development and demonstration of updated methods for real time monitoring and modeling of health-threatening air contaminants and air quality at the neighborhood level.  HARC and its partner research institutions, including UCLA, the University of North Carolina, and Aerodyne Research, Inc., applied the latest real time monitoring and modeling techniques to the measurement and attribution of ambient exposure to air toxics, such as the notorious carcinogen benzene.  The ultimate goal of the project is to help improve air quality and public health in those and other near-industry neighborhoods.

At Manchester, we deployed computer-aided tomography (CAT) scans (just like in medicine) to map toxic pollution around the clock throughout the neighborhood. Air quality CAT scans were complemented by real-time mobile monitoring outside industrial fence lines with immediate, real-time broadcasts of ambient measurement data over the Internet, followed by source attribution and quantification of transient emission events within an hour of field measurements. In addition, cultured human lung cells were exposed to ambient pollution so that the release of cell proteins and enzymes in response to air pollution, as well as the accompanying genetic response, could be measured.

Community engagement with local community residents was an essential part of the project, which included explanations of the science and tours of experimental sites and facilities. To better enable local residents and other stakeholders to understand the aims and objectives of BEE-TEX, a project website  was developed that includes, among other things, an interactive map of the study site where you can click on individual storage tanks and other industrial emission points and see what emissions are reported to the EPA by local petrochemical facilities.  Check out this video that explains what the BEE-TEX field study is all about.

The ability to have technology that can monitor around the clock, 24/7, 365 days a year, coupled with the ability to pinpoint the location of sources of that may be responsible for the peaks in pollution that we see, is a total game changer in terms of what people can do to protect the health of communities living in close proximity to facilities.  The ability to adaptively deploy mobile resources in response to real time information on the Internet enabled us to discover some surprising industrial emissions. But that is the subject of another story sometime in the near future, after the field study data analysis has been completed and subjected to rigorous peer review.

About the Author: Dr. Eduardo (Jay) Olaguer is the Director of the Air Quality Science Program at HARC, and the lead scientist of the BEE-TEX field study.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Career Advice from Mary Pat


At school, we are constantly given assignments to work in groups.  Often it is not the subject matter that makes the projects hard, but it is the coordinating of all the group members.  I wanted to get the perspective of an EPA employee who is tasked with coordinating a variety of people, so I sat down with Mary Pat Tyson. 


What is your position at the EPA?

I am the Branch Chief of the Air Toxics and Assessment Branch.  I manage three different sections: Toxics and Global Atmosphere, Indoor and Voluntary Programs, and Air Monitoring and Analysis Sections.  

Do you have prior work experiences that led you to the EPA?

During college I worked in a laboratory analyzing water samples for a drinking water project.  During that time I became aware of the EPA and different programs.  I started at the EPA in the Superfund Division working on hazardous waste site cleanup.  I moved on to a Branch Chief position in the Water Division where I worked on planning and grants along with the tribal programs.

What is a typical day like for you?

On a typical day I come in, check my email, and then meetings start.  Around 8, I have people in and out of my office for the rest of the day.  I have meetings with my boss, the section chiefs, and different state agencies.  I am also the President of the Federal Managers Association for EPA and work on issues that are of interest to federal managers.

What is the best part of your job?

Getting work done!  Getting to know the people and the work that excites them.  I love hearing about their work and helping out where I can.  In my role, I get to help people achieve their highest potential.  I enjoy communicating with section chiefs to make sure we have a strong team. 

Did you always have an interest in the environment?

I grew up in the city.  I enjoyed playing at parks, but never really was a nature person.  In high school a teacher suggested I study engineering because I was good at math and science.  This eventually led to me focusing in on studying environmental engineering.

What classes did you take in school that you use on the job today?

I took some practical classes about project management with teams.  Those have been very useful on the job.  In addition, math, science, and chemistry classes are always important.

Do you have any advice for kids today who have an interest in protecting our environment?

There are so many clubs and organizations to get involved with and learn about the environment.  Every neighborhood has opportunities to do your part.  In addition, the web is an info explosion!  You can learn how to start a compost pile in your backyard from a website.  It is important to stay close to the earth.  Take science and math classes.  The opportunities are endless!


Kelly Siegel is a student volunteer in the EPA’s Air and Radiation Division in Region 5, and is currently obtaining her Master’s degree in Urban Planning and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  She has a passion for sustainable development, running, and traveling with friends.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Cutting Mercury and Protecting America's Children

by Administrator Lisa P. Jackson

From historic efforts to cut pollution from American automobiles to strong measures to prevent power plant pollution from crossing state lines, 2011 was already a banner year for clean air and the health of the American people. And the EPA is closing out the year with our biggest clean air protection yet.

Last week, we finalized the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, or MATS, a rule that will protect millions of families and, especially, children from air pollution. Before this rule, there were no national standards that limited the amount of mercury, arsenic, chromium, nickel and acid gases power plants across the country could release into the air we breathe. Mercury is a neurotoxin that is particularly harmful to children, and emissions of mercury and other air toxics have been linked to damage to developing nervous systems, respiratory illnesses and other diseases. MATS will require power plants to install emissions controls that will also reduce particle pollution, which has been linked to premature death and cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.

As a result, MATS will provide between $37 billion and $90 billion in health benefits for the American people. Once the rule is fully implemented in 2016, it will prevent up to 11,000 premature deaths, 4,700 heart attacks, and 130,000 cases of aggravated asthma among children between six and 18 years old.

That last point is especially significant to me as a mother. I understand the importance of MATS in very profound ways, because both of my sons have struggled with asthma. Fifteen years ago, my youngest son spent his first Christmas in the hospital fighting to breathe. Like any parent of a child with asthma, I can tell you that the benefits of clean air protections like MATS are not just statistics and abstract concepts.

What we’re really talking about with all those numbers above are pregnant mothers who can rest a little easier knowing their children won’t be exposed to harmful levels of mercury in critical development stages. We are talking about reducing the levels of mercury in the fish that we and our kids eat every day. We are talking about future generations growing up healthier because there is less toxic pollution in the air they breathe.

Find out how MATS will protect health in your state.

What we’re also talking about with MATS are thousands of new opportunities for American workers. Not only will MATS provide health benefits that far outweigh the costs of compliance, it will also support jobs and innovation for our economy.

To meet the MATS standards over the next several years, many power plants will have to upgrade their operations with modern and widely available pollution control technology. There are about 1,100 coal-fired units that are covered by MATS, and about 40 percent do not use advanced pollution controls to limit emissions. Increased demand for scrubbers and other advanced pollution controls will mean increased business for American companies that lead the way in producing pollution control technology.

But that’s just the start. Power plants making upgrades will need workers to build, install, operate and maintain the pollution controls. As the CEO of one of the largest coal-burning utilities in the country recently said about cutting emissions by installing pollution control technology, “Jobs are created in the process – no question about that.” The EPA estimates that the demands for workers will support 46,000 short-term construction jobs and 8,000 long-term jobs.

The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards will protect millions of families and children from harmful and costly air pollution, provide the American people with health benefits that far outweigh the costs of compliance, and support job creation and innovation that are good for our economy. Families across the country – including my own – will benefit from the simple fact of being able to breathe cleaner air. That is what environmental protection and the work of the EPA is all about.

In this holiday season as we gather with our friends and families, Americans can take pride in the gift of clean air. Our children and future generations will have healthier air to breathe because of MATS and this historic year for clean air protection.

About the author: Lisa P. Jackson is the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency

Find out more about how MATS works:


Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Protecting the Public from Power Plant Air Toxics

By Ellen Kurlansky

I will admit that there were times in the past decade and one-half that I feared we would never reduce toxic emissions from power plants . Last month, EPA proposed a regulation to reduce emissions of mercury and other toxic pollutants from coal- and oil-fired power plants. These plants are a very large source of these pollutants, which along with mercury include other metals such as arsenic and cadmium, and acid gases such as hydrogen chloride and hydrogen cyanide. The regulation, called the Power Plant Mercury and Air Toxics Standards will have tremendous benefits for public health. It is expected to prevent between 6,800 and 17,000 premature deaths, 11,000 heart attacks, 120,000 asthma attacks, and 850,000 lost work days every year beginning in 2016.

The regulations had been long delayed, first because the studies that were required by the Clean Air Act took us longer than Congress had envisioned and then because the EPA took a tack during the last administration that was resoundingly rejected by the Court. But finally, in 2009 we set out to develop the regulation. One of our managers’ guiding principles was that the regulations adhere closely to the requirements of the Clean Air Act so that if it is challenged in the courts we will prevail and the benefits to public health will not be further delayed.

Many power plants in the US operate today with modern pollution controls. But many do not. Cost effective technology to control air pollution is available and proven. The Mercury and Air Toxics standard will mean that all coal- and oil-fired plants will need to limit their air emissions.

Developing this proposal was a massive undertaking involving staff from many offices at EPA. It required teams of engineers, economists, lawyers, and scientists. We had a hard deadline of March 16 ordered by the Court and so toward the end everyone was working evenings, weekends, pretty much all the time. I was struck, however, by the good humor and even excitement exhibited by most of the staff throughout those last busy days. I think people felt really good knowing that the regulation would be so important to improving public health. I personally felt very fortunate to have had the opportunity to be part of that.

About the author: Ms. Kurlansky is a policy analyst in the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation.  She has broad experience in environmental and energy policy gained from work at other EPA offices and at other government agencies, non-profit organizations, and as a consultant.  Ms. Kurlansky, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco, has a B.A. in Political Science and an M.A. in Economics.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.