Clearing the Air

Changes in the Air in China

The air quality monitoring team at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, led by Erica Keen Thomas (front row, second from right), helped put pressure on the Chinese government to increase its standards for measuring air pollution. (Courtesy of U.S. Embassy Beijing)

What could be more important than the air we breathe?

Air pollution is a serious issue around the world. It harms the environment and our health. Despite these threats, air pollution levels are not monitored in many countries. The State Department is helping to change that.

In 2008, State Department staff at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing launched a pilot program to monitor air quality ahead of the Summer Olympics. Since then, the program has expanded to more than 60 locations around the world, ensuring that millions of people have access to reliable air quality data.

I’ve never seen an initiative of the U.S. government have such an immediate dramatic impact in a country.”

– Gary Locke, U.S. Ambassador to China (2011-2014)


What is this machine?

air quality monitor pollutionThis is the original air quality monitoring device installed on the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Beijing in 2008. Instruments like this are now used at many U.S. embassies and consulates around the world. They sample the air hourly to measure the level of particulate matter. They can detect fine particles of pollutants 25 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair. (Collection of the National Museum of American Diplomacy)

Changes in the Air in China

In 2011, Environment, Science, Technology, and Health Officer Erica Keen Thomas expanded the State Department’s air quality monitoring program from Beijing to other major cities in China. 

Despite objections from Chinese authorities, U.S. posts continued to publish air quality data, which Chinese citizens shared on social media. These actions persuaded China to adopt more stringent monitoring standards and allow increased public access to air quality data.

Thomas’s success convinced the State Department to expand the program globally in partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Beijing Air Quality

In 2008, U.S. Embassy staff in Beijing began monitoring the city’s air quality using more rigorous standards than those used by the Chinese government. (AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan)