UW News

May 2, 2016

UW-led team wins $10M EPA grant for air pollution research

Civil & Environmental Engineering


Ben Amstutz, flickr

To help address the nation’s pressing need for better air quality, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has awarded a research team co-led by a University of Washington civil engineer a $10 million Air, Climate and Energy (ACE) grant.

The five-year grant will create the Center for Air, Climate and Energy Solutions. UW civil and environmental engineering professor Julian Marshall will co-lead the research center in collaboration with more than 25 researchers from Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Minnesota and several other universities.

Air pollution causes more than 3 percent of all deaths in the United States, according to the  Global Burden of Disease study led by the UW’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. This is a higher percentage than deaths related to drug use or road injuries. Although U.S. air quality has generally improved in the past decades, recent findings have shown that air pollution is worse for public health than previously thought.

The center’s researchers will explore which pollutants are most damaging to people’s health, as well as current levels and sources of pollution. The researchers will also provide guidance to the EPA on how air pollution emissions and concentrations are anticipated to change in the future and will evaluate strategies for reducing air pollution.

“A critical step for improving air pollution is understanding the contributions from specific sources, such as cars, ships, agriculture, and power plants,” Marshall said. “Our research will provide critical tools and information for understanding people’s exposure to air pollution and what steps would reduce those exposures.”

The researchers will use a new approach combining air pollution research with the related areas of climate change and energy usage. Since air pollution and climate change are both largely caused by the combustion of fossil fuels, this integrated approach will address commonalities and encourage solutions that will positively impact all three areas.

“A critical need facing our country is addressing air pollution and climate change at the same time, and certainly avoiding solutions to one problem that exacerbate the other,” said Chris Tessum, a UW civil and environmental engineering research scientist who is involved in the project. “We will investigate integrated approaches that identify win-win opportunities.”

The new center is one of three announced on May 1 by the EPA at the Health Effects Institute annual conference held in Denver. The centers were funded to address three primary objectives: better combined management of air pollution and climate change, the development of strategies for managing multiple air pollutants and tailoring regulatory efforts to regions of the U.S. based on local context. A common theme in the UW effort is to improve access to air pollution data and models for both experts and novices.

“Several important steps for understanding and improving air pollution are challenging to carry out,” Marshall said. “We aim to make tools that are easier for others to use to understand how to improve air quality and reduce the negative health effects.”

Another critical aspect of the research is investigating environmental justice to determine which populations have more exposure to air pollution and how new air quality management strategies may alter current disparities.

“We don’t all breathe the same air,” said Matthew Bechle, a UW civil and environmental engineering doctoral student and a member of the research team. “Some management strategies will have a larger impact on people in our country who currently are exposed to the worst air pollution.”

The new center will focus on five specific research projects: developing new user-friendly models to assess air quality and exposure; measuring pollutant levels in three cities: Austin, Texas, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh; developing multi-pollutant models for real-time analysis and to predict estimated average concentrations spanning multiple decades; investigating key air, climate and energy challenges and how they are related; and analyzing nationally representative health data to better understand multi-pollutant mortality risk and how it varies across the U.S.

For more information, contact Marshall at jdmarsh@uw.edu.