By Adam J. Blust

Even people who never thought about air quality got an education in the topic this summer, when Canadian wildfires caused air quality crises throughout the United States. 

Air quality was the subject of Sustain Dane’s latest Sustainable Breakfast Series panel Sept. 19. On the panel were:   

  • Cristina Carvajal – Executive Director, Wisconsin EcoLatinos 
  • Brad Pierce – Director, UW Madison Space & Science Engineering Center 
  • Brianna Denk – Air Quality Standards Section Chief, WI DNR Air Management Program 
  • Ivo Rozendaal – Partner, SmithGroup 

 Air quality is a complex issue, involving industrialization, climate change, urban planning and meteorology, among other factors. 

 “Your air pollution problem is probably unique – where you live, where you work,” Denk said. “The solutions might be unique as well.” 

The wildfires of this past summer, Denk said, emphasized how interconnected all of us are when it comes to air quality. In Wisconsin, only 10 percent of the air pollution comes from local sources; the rest comes from outside the state. Carvajal noted “The air quality changes depending on the location, and we can see that some areas in Madison are more exposed to bad air quality than others.” 

But there is reason to be hopeful, despite what we have gone through recently. 

“It seems counterintuitive for me to say that our air quality has improved a lot, after the summer we have just had,” Denk said. “But our air quality *has* improved a lot, in our state and across the country, since the Clean Air Act.” 

The Clean Air Act celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2020. 

Pierce worked with NASA in the 90s to develop satellite monitoring systems to track air quality.  

“The east coast was hazy all the time,” Pierce said. “We could see pollution from space.”

That kind of regional haze is much better now, in the years since the Clean Air Act. But now climate change is making environmental hazards like the Canadian wildfires worse.  

Geography also matters. Wisconsin’s Lake Michigan shoreline, where air quality problems persist, is directly north of the third largest metropolitan area – Chicago. 

“Air pollution does not respect our state boundaries,” Denk said. “All that pollution blows out over the lake and then it comes onto Wisconsin shores. That adds a complex regulatory challenge for us.” 

Still, emission reductions – and thus improvements to air quality overall – have been significant because of the Clean Air Act, Pierce said. He said in urban areas, one focus for study has moved to personal care products and perfumes, which can be significant issues in large urban areas like New York and Chicago. 

 “You walk down the street, you smell people’s perfume,” Pierce said. 

Another focus of air quality issues is in the built environment – inside, rather than outside. In these areas, measurement is better and the data is better, said Rozendaal. That leads to better outcomes. 

Another area that has greatly advanced is in materials science, he said. We understand better what emissions come from the materials around us, and how to limit those emissions. 

Ventilation is another major focus in indoor air quality, Rozendaal said. Studies have shown that in a building with proper ventilation, cognitive skills of the people working in that building are 25 percent higher than those in closed-off environments. Ventilation is still a major concern, especially in older buildings. 

“It’s very easy to make a financial case that your rent is only a small part of the investment in your organization,” Rozendaal said. “You need to be investing in your people with better air quality. It pays for itself.” 

In the workplace, Rozendaal recommended: 

  • Being familiar with the mechanical systems and installing the best filters you can 
  • Monitor and measure the air quality 
  • Get oxygen into the system with ventilation 

    Even at home, it pays to be mindful of proper ventilation. 

    “Certainly, open your windows, if you have that luxury at home. Pay a bit more attention to the opening and closing of windows,” Rozendaal said. 

    Air quality also has a social justice component, Pierce said. 

    “All across the country, because of the way our urban areas evolved, there’s a lot of people of color and of low income that are exposed to hazardous chemicals,” he said.  

    A major focus for air quality in general is limiting CO2 emissions from fossil fuels. Unlike other pollutants that have short lifetimes, CO2 stays around for hundreds of years, Pierce said.

    “Which means we are dealing with emissions that we have emitted for the last century,” he said. “We need to see a dramatic change from a carbon economy to a renewable energy economy.” 

    The panel ended by discussing hopeful signs for air quality in our society going forward. 

    There are billions of dollars in Inflation Reduction Act funds that are funding climate programs, Denk said, which can end up having major positive impact on air quality overall. 

    We are entering a “new revolution” in terms of measuring air quality from space, Pierce said. This year, NASA launched a satellite that provides hourly data on air quality; and more data means more potential for change. 

    For Rozendaal, the advance is simply having wide-ranging dialogue about these issues in more and new contexts. 

    “We’re having the right holistic conversations that could make solving air quality not a mystery,” he said. “You can measure it, you can solve it.”