Safe air, land, and water are vital to a healthy community. The physical environment plays a major role in impacting quality of life, years of healthy life, and health disparities.1 Globally, nearly 25 percent of all deaths and total disease burden can be attributed to environmental factors.2 Despite substantial progress in improving outdoor air quality in the United States over the past several decades, approximately 124 million people lived in counties that did not meet national outdoor air quality standards in 2010.3
Poor outdoor air quality can be attributed to both natural sources of pollution, such as dust from wind storms, as well as human-generated sources, such as emissions from vehicles.4 Exposure to outdoor air pollution can cause both short-term and long-term health effects, including damage to the immune, neurological, reproductive, cardiovascular, and respiratory systems; asthma; and death.5, 6
Among the many factors that contribute to poor indoor air quality, secondhand smoke is one of the most common of these pollutants, and poses serious health risks. During 2007–2008, approximately 88 million nonsmokers (more than 40 percent) were exposed to secondhand smoke in the United States.7 The health impact of exposure to secondhand smoke include: head and neck, lung, stomach, pancreatic, bladder, and cervix cancers; damage to the respiratory and cardiovascular systems; gum disease; reduced fertility; and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).8
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) monitors air pollution levels nationwide. Since 1996, the EPA has designated the most populous county in Arizona (Maricopa County) a “Serious Nonattainment Area,” meaning that air pollution levels—in this case particulate matter, such as sand and dust—regularly exceed national health thresholds.9 To protect the health of its 3.9 million residents, Maricopa County has struggled for years to keep within EPA-defined acceptable limits of air pollution generated by industry, agriculture, and dust storms.10, 11 After initial efforts to improve air quality had limited success, in 2011 the Maricopa County Air Quality Department reached out to businesses, governmental agencies, public institutions, and local communities to identify feasible strategies to address the problem.
Together, these partners implemented Rapid Response Notification System, which was launched in June 2011 to identify and respond to man-made dust pollution incidents—that is, human activity that disturbs dirt surfaces—with the goal of reducing the number of days this region exceeds the Federal health standards for air pollution. Through this system, air quality is monitored in real-time throughout the county, and the data is gathered and transmitted to the Air Quality Department for rapid analysis. Businesses, organizations, and individuals participating in the program are automatically notified via email, text message, Twitter, and Facebook when the air quality in their surrounding area declines below acceptable levels. Participants then implement a response by either reducing dust or halting activities that generate dust and particle pollution, like construction or driving on unpaved roads, until the air quality recovers sufficiently. The Air Quality Department also dispatches a Rapid-Response Inspector to the scene to assess the sources of pollution and discourage activities that contribute to poor air quality.12
Because so many facets of daily life, industry, and agriculture can contribute to air pollution, the Air Quality Department has worked to engage public and private stakeholders across multiple sectors, including businesses; law enforcement; city, county, and state governments; restaurants; home builders; health care organizations; and media outlets. For example, the Air Quality Department works with local law enforcement agencies to patrol specific areas in response to complaints of improper off-highway vehicle activity, which generates dust and particle pollution.
The program also includes an educational outreach component to inform Maricopa County residents about air pollution challenges and provide them with the tools they need to take action to improve air quality. Using dollars partially collected from air quality violations, the Air Quality Department works with multiple sectors of the Maricopa County community to reduce pollution and to participate in the Rapid Response program. The Department provides brown bags, seminars, and specific dust control training for its stakeholder organizations. Individuals participating in the training act as program champions for their industries and within their peer networks, educating their colleagues on air pollution and its health impacts, developing materials to prevent and respond to air quality incidents, and enforcing air quality statutes.
Since implementing the Rapid Response Notification System, the Maricopa County Air Quality Department and partners have successfully responded to 12 of 14 human-generated dust incidents. In these 12 cases, the county was able to keep air quality levels from exceeding health-based air pollution thresholds.
1 Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Environmental Quality.” Available from: http://www.healthypeople.gov/2020/LHI/environmentalQuality.aspx.
2 Prüss-Üstün, A. & Corvalán, C. (2006). Preventing Disease Through Healthy Environments: Towards an Estimate of the Environmental Burden of Disease. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization. Available from: http://www.who.int/quantifying_ehimpacts/publications/preventingdisease.pdf [PDF - 8.4 MB] .
3 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Air Quality Trends.” Available from: http://www.epa.gov/airtrends/aqtrends.html.
4 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Sources of Pollutants in the Ambient Air.” Available from: http://www.epa.gov/apti/course422/ap3.html.
5 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Effects of Air Pollutants - Health Effects.” Available from: http://www.epa.gov/eogapti1/course422/ap7a.html.
6 National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, National Institutes of Health. “Air Pollution.” Available from: http://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/exposure/air-pollution.
8 Office of Smoking and Health, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2010). Tobacco Use: Smoking & Secondhand Smoke. CDC Vital Signs. Atlanta, GA.
9 GoodGuide. “Nonattainment Areas.” Scorecard: The Pollution Information Site. Available from: http://scorecard.goodguide.com/env-releases/def/cap_naa.html .
10 U.S. Census Bureau. “Maricopa County QuickFacts.” State and County QuickFacts. Available from: http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/04/04013.html.
11 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Classifications of Particulate Matter (PM-10) Nonattainment Areas.” Available from: http://www.epa.gov/airquality/greenbook/pnc.html.
12 National Association of Counties 2012 Achievement Awards. “Rapid Response Notification System.” Available from: http://www.naco.org/programs/recognition/Pages/2012AchievementAwards.aspx .