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Putting the Brakes on Air Pollution


HoukJeff Houk is an air quality specialist with the U.S. Federal Highway Administration fhwalogo(FHWA). For nearly three decades, his career has involved helping local, state, and federal agencies to measure and reduce air pollution emissions stemming from vehicle transportation and road construction projects. Thanks to people like Houk and other environmental scientists, problems like global climate change have not only been increasingly recognized by scientists, but are receiving major public and legislative attention.


To halt air pollution and reverse the damage already done to the environment will take continued efforts on the part of science, government, industry, and society. This will continue to be especially true as technology swiftly changes the way the transportation system operates in the future. Houk noted that the air pollution impact of upcoming technologies like automated vehicles and alternative energy sources remains to be seen.


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“Things are changing so rapidly from a technology standpoint,” Houk said. “My question is, what does that mean for air pollution? Will it be good because we have less traffic congestion? Or will it be bad because people will drive more because it’s cool?”


One thing for certain is that the amount of pollution in the environment in five, 10, or 20 years will depend on whether we continue to make the environment a priority in transportation. And as Houk noted, there will be plenty of challenges to overcome.


“We’re going to have to figure out how to deal with all the new technologies that are changing transportation so rapidly,” Houk said. “There’s always going to be room for more people with expertise in air quality.”


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Houk has been in the air quality industry for nearly 30 years. He earned his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering, then began his career working for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a vehicle emissions testing expert. He tells students that the strong communication and writing skills he had developed during high school were just as important as his college degree in helping him find his first job in his field.


“I got hired not because I was the world’s smartest chemical engineer?which I wasn’t. Or because I had work experience in the engineering field in college, which I didn’t. I got hired because I was a good writer, and because I was on the debate team in high school," he said.


He encouraged all students, and future environmental scientists alike, to develop a well-rounded skill set outside of technical areas, which would help them in their careers down the road.


"I would really encourage people that are pursuing any kind of technical field to get experience in other things too,” he said.

If you’re interested in learning more about air quality science and the transportation industry, you might start by visiting the Federal Highway Administration’s Resource Center Air Quality Team page. You can also visit the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website for even more information and resources on environmental quality and careers in the field.

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