Air Pollution Tweets from U.S. Embassies Saving Lives, Study Finds

Pollution clouds the Forbidden City in Beijing.

Pollution clouds the Forbidden City in Beijing. Alex Berger via Flickr

By tweeting real-time local pollution data in developing countries, U.S. embassies helped spur measurable improvements in air quality, a new study finds.

In 2008, the U.S. Embassy in Beijing began tweeting air quality readings from a new pollution monitor, drawing public attention to hazardous levels of particulate matter in the Chinese capital. By 2020, U.S. embassies in 38 developing countries were live-tweeting air quality readings, providing regular updates on pollution levels in cities where such data may be lacking.

Researchers examined 36 of those countries to see if embassy tweets had a discernible impact. They gathered satellite data on pollution from before and after U.S. embassies began sharing air quality readings, comparing the results with data from developing countries without embassy monitors.

The study found that, by drawing public attention to pollution, the tweets led to a measurable reduction in airborne particulate matter. Researchers estimate that, in the median city, improvements in air quality saved 303 lives in 2019. The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Poor air quality is a leading cause of premature death worldwide, responsible for one out of every nine deaths,” Akshaya Jha, an economist at Carnegie Mellon University and lead author of the study, said in a statement. “Sharing credible air quality information can highlight this issue and have huge health and economic benefits that far outweigh the costs of the monitoring technology.”


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