Air pollution is a major risk to human health and prosperity. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 99% of the world’s population breathes unhealthy air, especially people in middle- and low-income countries. The annual global cost of poor air quality is approximately $8 trillion, according to the World Bank.
Air quality engineers are at the forefront of the battle against air pollution. Students who are interested in environmental engineering and want to help develop solutions to air pollution should explore advanced online engineering programs that can provide an educational foundation for a career in air pollution control.
The Costs of Rising Air Pollution
Air pollution results from chemical or biological contaminants. It consists of tiny particles that are damaging to health, both in the short term and long term. Cities are especially prone to air pollution caused by these harmful particulates, which can lower visibility and cause a haze known as smog.
Air pollutants include carbon dioxide, ozone, nitrogen oxide, and sulfur dioxide. Sources of air pollution include the following:
- Internal combustion engines. Gas- and diesel-powered cars and trucks are significant sources of air pollution.
- Fossil fuels. Coal and natural gas also cause air pollution.
- Industrial manufacturing. Factories emit toxic chemicals, such as mercury and lead.
- Forest fires. Wildfires that burn thousands of acres can result in highly polluted air.
The Financial Impacts of Air Pollution
Global data on the financial impact of air pollution can be sobering. The World Economic Forum notes that the annual economic impact of air pollution in the United States and China is $600 billion and $900 billion, respectively. Meanwhile, according to environmental nonprofit the Clean Air Fund, air pollution in India costs the nation about $95 billion each year, or about half of all taxes collected.
The Health Impacts of Air Pollution
Some of the financial impact of air pollution stems from health-related issues. The health toll taken by air pollution is heavy. Air pollution particulates are linked to respiratory illnesses such as asthma and chronic diseases such as diabetes.
Other health impacts include preterm births, high mortality rates, cancer, birth defects, and heart disease. A report by the organization Cities 4 Children estimates there are nearly 240,000 excess child deaths annually due to respiratory tract infections caused by air pollution.
The Environmental Impacts of Air Pollution
Air pollution also has grave environmental impacts. It contributes to climate change due to the amount of carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide in the atmosphere and causes degradation of water, soil, and air. These impacts include the following:
- Acid rain. Acid rain occurs when sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide enter the atmosphere and mix with rain. Acid rain turns wetlands toxic, poisoning the soil and killing plants and animals.
- Air pollution contributes to eutrophication, which involves the accumulation of nutrients, like nitrogen, in bodies of water. These nutrients can cause algae blooms and low oxygen levels in the water, killing fish and altering the ecosystem.
- Ozone buildup and depletion. The ozone layer is a protective layer of Earth’s atmosphere that absorbs ultraviolet radiation. However, at the ground level, ozone buildup due to air pollution is unhealthy. Additionally, air pollution can deplete atmospheric ozone, causing excess radiation to come through, raising the risk of skin cancer and other harmful effects.
Facing these challenges and their severe implications, air quality engineers perform the essential work of identifying and containing key atmospheric pollutants in indoor and outdoor environments.
Common Responsibilities for an Air Quality Engineer
An air quality engineer has numerous responsibilities, which generally fall into the following broad categories:
- Modeling and understanding pollution and its sources
- Monitoring emissions and compliance with applicable regulations
- Designing and implementing quality improvement solutions
Across all these domains, engineers rely upon their extensive backgrounds in chemistry, biology, and statistics to inform their decisions. The ultimate goal of their work is to control and ideally reduce pollution to improve public health.
Modeling and Understanding
Say a new chemical factory is slated for construction. Early in its life cycle, environmental engineers, including ones specializing in air quality, will identify the types of compounds that will be used in its production processes as well as the air pollutants that materials may generate.
Such analysis is essential to any potential containment of pollution, whether from a factory, a car, or another source. It may be supported by statistical models and representations that link pollution levels to specific fuels, contaminants, and air patterns, which can in turn be addressed with appropriate technologies and regulations.
For example, air quality modeling was pivotal in the reduction of nitrogen dioxide. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), nitrogen dioxide decreased by 64% between 1980 and 2021.
Monitoring and Compliance Enforcement
Air quality engineers who work in the public sector may ensure compliance with federal and/or state rules and regulations like the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule.
Comprehensive guidelines provided by the state of Michigan exemplify the common activities that air quality engineers may oversee, such as:
- Reviewing applications for installation permits to determine how much toxic air pollution a facility could produce, even with the best possible environmental controls in place
- Assessing compliance of these atmospheric emissions with the Clean Air Act, current state administrative rules, and public health-based screening levels
- Assisting with additional specific compliance standards applicable to industries such as wood production and furniture manufacturing
In the private sector, air quality engineers may perform similar tasks. Accordingly, they may check to see if their employers are complying with legally binding regulations and steering clear of the financial penalties and public relations embarrassments. Engineers may also participate in negotiations with regulatory agencies on such issues.
Designing and Implementing Solutions
Meeting mandated standards for air quality is only possible with the right infrastructure. Ventilation systems, baghouses (for removing particulates at steel mills, fossil fuel-burning power plants, pharmaceutical factories, etc.), regenerative incinerators (for controlling pollution streams from volatile organic compounds), and many other control mechanisms are designed and maintained by air quality engineers.
Environmental engineers often visit industrial and municipal sites to measure the success of these air pollution controls and advise on any necessary changes. Their recommendations are rooted in evaluations of scientific evidence, along with applications of engineering methodology and consultation of regulatory guidance. These skills are developed both on the job and in degree-granting engineering programs.
Careers for Environmental Engineers
The median annual salary for environmental engineers, which includes air quality engineers, was $96,820 in 2021. Demand for environmental engineers is expected to grow by 4% between 2021 and 2031.
Environmental engineers typically need at least a bachelor’s degree that provides sufficient background in science and mathematics, in addition to engineering. A master’s degree confers a greater breadth of knowledge, enabling environmental engineers to better pursue critical research on air pollution issues in the 21st century. An advanced degree may also qualify an engineer to work as an instructor in higher education, and may make them more attractive to certain employers.
Below are some careers for environmental engineers who want to help devise solutions to air quality challenges.
Air Quality Engineer
Air quality engineers monitor indoor and outdoor air quality. They take samples and conduct chemical analyses. They may work with architects and building designers to ensure that air quality is optimal for new or existing construction. They also monitor emissions and consult with both government agencies and the private sector to ensure that companies adhere to environmental regulations.
According to salary research site Payscale, the median salary for air quality engineers was $81,300 as of August 2022.
Air Quality Specialist
Air quality specialists monitor and collect air samples to maintain air quality, often working in industrial or manufacturing settings. Like air quality engineers, specialists conduct testing to help reduce air pollution and ensure the organizations they work for are in compliance with regulations. Air quality specialists can have a background in environmental science, environmental engineering, biology, or a related degree. According to Payscale, the median annual salary for air quality specialists was $64,500 as of August 2022.
Environmental Science Technician
Environmental science technicians work in the public and private sectors. Their responsibilities include environmental testing, data collection, and research. They also monitor air pollution levels, such as from factory smokestacks and vehicle emissions, and perform inspections to check for environmental hazards. According to the BLS, the median annual wage for environmental science technicians was $47,370 in 2021. Employment of technicians was expected to grow by 6% between 2021 and 2031.
Help Clear the Air: Become an Air Quality Engineer
Are you interested in a career where you can help protect the environment and public health? Explore the University of California, Riverside’s online Master of Science in Engineering. The program’s environmental engineering specialization can help you gain the theoretical knowledge and practical experience to qualify for a variety of jobs that tackle air pollution and other environmental hazards.
Learn more about the program and take the first step toward a career in environmental engineering.