Is a career as an air quality engineer right for you?

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Air quality engineers review data

Clean air is vital to public health. However, the worldwide prevalence of anthropogenic pollution means most people regularly inhale particulates and other contaminants that threaten their wellbeing — the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that nine in 10 humans breathe polluted air.

The consequences are vast. Outdoor air pollution such as carbon monoxide and particles from combusted fossil fuels are WHO-classified carcinogens, and up to 7 million deaths result from air pollution every year. In addition to cancer (especially of the lungs), unclean air can precipitate a wide range of other life-threatening medical conditions, including stroke and heart disease.

Ensuring clean air is integral to both human health and environmental sustainability. Air quality engineers perform essential work toward realizing this goal, and you can pursue a career as one by earning a Master of Science in Engineering (MSE) from the University of California, Riverside (UCR).

Air quality careers: A view from the top

As an air quality engineer, your mission is to promote clean and breathable air via the technical, regulatory and advisory mechanisms at your disposal. Your day-to-day responsibilities will vary considerably depending on your employer, as air quality engineers can work through private industry or the public sector. Let’s examine a few of the possibilities:

Environmental system design and testing

When you think about air pollution, you probably envision outdoor pollution first, which makes sense. External sources of pollution such as power plants, refineries and vehicles, along with the visible smog they can create, are much higher profile than their indoor counterparts, but the latter can still cause significant health issues. Air quality engineers help mitigate the risk from indoor pollution through the design of efficient ventilation systems.

Let’s say you were working in a plastics factory. The production process might produce chemicals hazardous to human health. As an air quality professional you would need to:

  • Catalog which harmful and regulated substances are created, and in what amounts.
  • Design the ventilation infrastructure necessary for clearing these contaminants and minimizing exposure.
  • Determine how to safely discharge the pollutants in accordance with applicable regulation.
  • Perform relevant industry research and due diligence to find the optimal methodologies for each of the above action items.

Such tasks might involve atmospheric dispersion modeling — to understand how pollutants will move through the air — and air sampling to accurately monitor typical exposure to pollution in the facility. Through these practices, air quality engineers contribute to safer and more compliant workplaces and communities.

Emissions permitting

U.S. federal legislation such as the Clean Air Act as well as many state-level laws regulate emissions content. Consistent compliance with these statutes is essential not only for preserving air quality, but also for avoiding the costly delays and fines for violations.

An air quality engineer might participate in permit applications to make sure that an organization can dependably comply with applicable rules and regulations for emissions. For example, construction projects routinely involve the operation of heavy machinery like diesel locomotives. It’s necessary to understand and document their environmental impacts to secure approval of official permits.

These permits are legally enforceable documents. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency along with state and local permitting authorities may issue them, which include requirements for how long each specific emissions source must be monitored. Air quality engineers know how to navigate the associated application processes.

Assessment, supervision and negotiation

Being an air quality engineer is about more than simply knowing the technical ins and outs of air pollution and how to control it. There’s a major managerial component to the job too, as shown by the centrality of regulatory compliance to an environmental engineer’s position. In addition to emissions permitting, air quality engineers also assist with the assessment of air control systems and sources of pollution, the supervision of other workers and even with negotiations with regulatory agencies.

Air quality engineers will often review reports such as test results and communicate the findings to project stakeholders and government agencies. Depending on seniority, they might also oversee the on-site work on projects to ensure compliance. The role can easily take you from a computer screen where you are looking at mockups for a new filtration system or the results of an emission test, to a field site where you consult with project managers.

Air quality engineer salaries and requirements

Becoming an air quality engineer is a great way to contribute to cleaner air for everyone while earning above-average compensation. According to PayScale, the average salary for an air quality engineer was more than $67,000 as of January 2019. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) groups air quality engineers under environmental engineers, who had 2017 median pay of $86,800.

The BLS also estimates 8 percent growth in environmental engineer employment from 2016 to 2026. State, local and federal government agencies are expected to sustain much of the demand for environmental engineers in the years ahead as they refocus their efforts on cleaner air and water.

A bachelor’s’ degree is usually required for becoming an air quality engineer or any type of environmental engineer. A master’s degree like the UCR MSE can provide the additional background and expertise necessary for competing for advanced positions.

At UCR, you can become an expert in both the technical and managerial sides of engineering. Upon graduating, you will have the skills needed to lead a modern team of engineers. Our 100 percent online program delivers a comprehensive curriculum in a flexible format, with expedited completion possible in only 13 months. Choose from seven concentrations, including environmental engineering.

To learn more about your online engineering degree options, visit the main program page and request a free copy of the MSE brochure.

Recommended Readings


How environmental engineers help with air pollution control

5 Careers for MS Environmental Engineering Grads




Average Air Quality Engineer Salary

Environmental Engineers

Introduction to Indoor Air Quality

Title V monitoring EXAMPLES

Air Emissions Monitoring for Permits

How Air Pollution is Destroying Our Health

World Health Organization: Outdoor Air Pollution Causes Cancer