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U.S. embassies are going to measure other countries’ air quality. Surprise: Some don’t like it much

Smog covers the banks of the Songhua River on Jan. 22 in the Jilin province of China. The Air Quality Index in north China’s Jilin province has risen to 260, indicating high pollution. (ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images)

In 2008, American diplomats in Beijing quietly installed an electronic monitor outside the U.S. Embassy to test pollution levels in the Chinese capital’s famously sooty air. The results, posted daily on the Internet, were mainly intended for U.S citizens and visitors, but soon ordinary Chinese were logging in for reliable information about health threats in the air they breathed.

Chinese officials complained, but the daily reports from the embassy’s monitor added to the pressure that eventually led China to take dramatic steps to reduce smog. It worked so well, in fact, that the Obama administration has now decided on a major expansion — to U.S. diplomatic missions all around the world.

In a joint announcement on Wednesday, Secretary of State John F. Kerry and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy unveiled plans to place air-quality monitors outside embassies in numerous foreign cities, starting with diplomatic posts in India and then moving to Vietnam, Mongolia and other countries.

Again, the goal ostensibly is to keep American ex-pats and travelers informed about health threats. But Kerry acknowledged other benefits to providing local populations with reliable information about air quality.

“We’re not the only country in which this kind of awareness has led to action,” Kerry told reporters at a State Department news conference.

The plan to install air monitors at embassies is an expansion of an EPA program called AirNow, which provides real-time data on smog and soot for U.S. cities through a Web site and a smartphone app. The new international program will focus on a single measurement of air quality — fine particulates, or microscopic particles that contribute to haze and trigger asthmatic attacks and other respiratory ailments. Bejing and other Asian cities frequently show unhealthy and even hazardous levels of particulates from diesel exhaust and smoke from coal-burning.

Chinese officials, who previously dismissed concerns over what they called excessive “fog” in the country’s largest cities, have been compelled by improved monitoring to taking dramatic steps to combat air pollution, which Beijing Mayor Wang Anshun recently described as a “life-or-death” situation. U.S. and Chinese officials announced a landmark agreement in November to lower air pollution in both countries to improve health and fight a major cause of climate change.

McCarthy said she was “not the most popular person” when she visited Beijing several years ago after the embassy’s air monitor was first installed. But eventually official attitudes began to change as local residents were able to call up air-quality data from the embassy on their cellphones, she said. The embassy’s air monitor, located in the heart of the capital, typically showed unhealthier air quality compared to official Chinese data.

“What happened was that they took action,” she said of the Chinese government. “They realized there were things they could do.”  She added that  U.S. officials intend to offer practical help as well as raw data as they expand access to information about air quality to cities around the world.

U.S. environmental groups hailed the administration’s step, though some said the White House could be doing more to improve air quality at home. The EPA is considering tighter rules on smog-causing ozone in U.S. cities.

“Putting the spotlight on this can only lead to improvements,” said Frank O’Donnell,  president of Clean Air Watch, a Washington-based environmental group. “It will be even better after EPA updates the smog standard and the related warning system.”