December 1, 2020

The United States' network of 3,900 air monitoring devices across the country routinely miss "major toxic releases and day-to-day pollution dangers," Reuters reports after examining data from the Environmental Protection Agency.

The air monitoring system failed to detect any risk from 10 of the biggest oil refinery explosions from the past decade, despite thousands of people requiring hospitalization and the refineries themselves reporting toxic emissions to regulators, Reuters notes.

In one example from a refinery explosion in Philadelphia last year, the refinery owner told regulators the blast released nearly 700,000 of hazardous chemicals and 3,200 pounds of hydrofluoric acid. Yet, the city's Air Quality Index showed the day was one of the cleanest of 2019, a statistic Johns Hopkins University environmental engineering professor Peter DeCarlo called "crazy."

In some cases, dangerous air quality levels are missed because there are no monitors for small particle pollution present in the first place, Reuters reports. An oil refinery in Superior, Wisconsin, experienced a leak of 17,000 barrels of asphalt in 2018, covering the city in black smoke. But Superior's population of 27,000 is considered too small to require permanent government air pollution monitors nearby despite the presence of the refinery, a spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources told Reuters. Read more about the system's failures at Reuters. Tim O'Donnell

December 7, 2015

Beijing is bracing itself for three consecutive days of severe smog this week, prompting China's capital city to issue its first-ever red alert Monday. The alert, which urges the highest level of caution in the city's four-tier warning system, will begin Tuesday at 7 a.m. and end at noon on Thursday.

Schools will be advised to close, factories and construction sites will be temporarily shut down, and severe limitations on traffic will be enforced. Cars with odd and even license plate numbers will be required to alternate days driving. "It is history — this is a precedent set," Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs in Beijing, said. "This is extremely important to stop children from being exposed to such a high level of pollution."

Last week, Beijing issued the year's first orange alert — one rung below the red alert — as smog in some areas rose to levels 40 times what is considered safe by the World Health Organization. Though levels are now lower than they were last week, the heightened alert was made in anticipation of what's to come, the BBC reports.

As of Monday at 6 p.m. local time, air pollution levels were 10 times what is considered safe. Becca Stanek

July 30, 2015

An investigation by The Associated Press found incredibly high levels of viruses and bacteria from sewage in the water of Rio de Janeiro venues where Olympic and Paralympic athletes will compete next summer.

Over a period of five months, AP conducted four rounds of tests at Olympic sites, and found that none were ready for swimming or boating events. The results consistently showed large amounts of active and infectious human adenoviruses, which can cause respiratory trouble and intense vomiting and diarrhea, with concentrations similar to those seen in raw sewage. At one site that was thought to be cleaned up, Rodrigo de Freitas Lake, there were 14 million adenoviruses per liter to 1.7 billion per liter; for comparison, in Southern California, water officials are concerned when viral counts are at 1,000 per liter. "What you have there is basically raw sewage," marine biologist John Griffith told AP. "It's all the water from the toilets and the showers and whatever people put down their sinks, all mixed up, and it's going out into the beach waters."

Already, some competitors training in Rio have become sick, complaining of fever, vomiting, and diarrhea. The Austrian sailing team has been training for months in the Guanabara Bay, and coach Ivan Bulaja said it "is by far the worst water quality we've ever seen in our sailing careers. I am quite sure if you swim in this water and it goes into your mouth or nose that quite a lot of bad things are coming inside your body." In Rio, most of the waste goes through open-air ditches, down through streams and rivers that feed the Olympic water sites. Even though Brazilian officials have promised that the water will be safe in time for the games, international experts told AP it's too late to get everything cleaned up. Catherine Garcia

February 3, 2015

In 66 of China's 74 major cities, including Beijing, the air quality failed to meet basic standards in 2014.

China's Environment Ministry said that the worst-performing city was Baoding, an industrial center in Hebei province, while the best air was in Haikou, the capital of the southern island province of Hainan, The Associated Press reports. Ratings were based on samples of major pollutants, including PM2.5, PM10, carbon monoxide, ozone, and nitrogen dioxide.

China is the biggest greenhouse-gas emitter in the world, and it recently started to publish updates on levels of PM2.5, which are small particles that in high quantities can impact visibility and increase health problems. In November, the country said it would stop the increase in its carbon emissions by 2030 and aim to cut coal usage by 75 percent by 2022. Catherine Garcia

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