Pittsburgh, PA

Low-cost air monitors put data in community’s hands

The Homepage, published by Hazelwood Initiative

By Juliet Martinez

This story appeared in the October, 2021, issue of The Homepage. For updates on the community air monitoring project, please attend the Hazelwood Initiative community meeting on January 11 from 6-8 p.m. Register at https://bit.ly/2SwPr9k to attend.

Researchers and Hazelwood citizen scientists plan to measure air quality using low-cost sensors. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania may soon join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative [RGGI].

Abhishek Viswanathan, a PhD student at Pitt, spoke with The Homepage. He will help Hazelwood residents with low-cost air quality sensors interpret and connect the data to their experiences. This will give residents more power to seek changes they want.

“Like stopping 18-wheelers from going down Second Avenue as a possible outcome,” Mr. Viswanathan said. Hazelwood resident Joy Dore suggested this at a recent virtual meeting. “Having the numbers and data and information to back up claims of pollution will be very useful.”

But health problems caused by pollution are not restricted to Second Avenue. A recent editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine said more people are having heart, lung and kidney disease, pregnancy complications and mental health challenges because of global warming. Poor, Black and Brown people, seniors, babies, children and people with health problems suffer the most from climate change.

Climate change and RGGI

Gov. Wolf has been working for two years to have Pennsylvania join RGGI, pronounced “Reggie.” The program sets limits on carbon dioxide production. It then allows polluters to buy pollution credits if they go over their allowances.

Last month, the Pennsylvania Independent Regulatory Review Commission approved of joining RGGI. Then the House Environmental Resources and Energy committee passed a disapproval resolution. Pennsylvania will still join RGGI in 2022 if less than two-thirds of the General Assembly opposes it.

Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Virginia already joined RGGI. This means power plants in those states have to pay for every ton of carbon dioxide they emit. Pennsylvania is the fourth largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the country. But the state’s Republican-led legislature has supported the fossil fuels industry. Business groups, organized labor and Democratic and Republican representatives from fossil-fuel producing communities have as well.

Environmental advocates say joining RGGI holds polluters accountable. They say this will help address the dangers of climate change. Monitoring pollution through citizen science is another way to hold polluters and local governments accountable.

Handful of monitors for the whole county

The Allegheny County Health Department [ACHD] tracks air quality using precise, expensive sensors. They only have a handful of them, though. Pittsburgh is one of the most polluted cities in the country. Allegheny County is one of the top counties in the country for cancer risk from air pollution. Given these realities, the ACHD monitoring network is quite sparse.

The county has four monitors that measure superfine particulates called PM2.5. These particles, less than half the size of a grain of pollen, can build up in the lungs. They cause problems for children, because their lungs are smaller, seniors and anyone with heart or lung problems.

Three ACHD monitors measure ground-level ozone. This forms when car exhaust and gasses called volatile organic compounds [VOCs] react with sunlight. Ground-level ozone is often a component of smog and can cause breathing problems.

Finally, four ACHD sensors measure sulfur dioxide. This gas with a rotten-egg smell comes from power plants, smelters, factories and vehicles burning coal, oil and natural gas. Sulfur dioxide is in both smog and acid rain, and can irritate lungs. Sensitive people suffer from even small amounts.

The ACHD did not return calls asking why the official air quality monitoring system is so sparse. But the low-cost sensors planned for Hazelwood could become part of an official network. Low-cost air sensor data in North Carolina is now part of the Environmental Protection Agency’s official air-quality mapping system.

Between October, 2021, and January, 2022, air quality was unhealthy for sensitive groups on two days.Image courtesy of Allegheny County Health Department

Data that works for the people who are affected by it

Mr. Viswanathan said the low-cost sensors will measure air temperature, humidity, sulfur dioxide, PM2.5, ozone and VOCs. He will help turn data into easy-to-understand graphics that neighbors can discuss.

Residents may track Air Quality Action days and asthma symptoms in their kids. Or they might see if planned Smart Spine modifications along Second Avenue help air quality. Smart Spine programs should cut pollution by keeping traffic moving through intersections.

Whatever changes residents want, they will have data to back up their advocacy, Mr. Viswanathan said. Maybe they will ask for more official air quality monitors or traffic flow changes on Second Avenue. Either way, the data will serve the community agenda, not the government or the experts. “I don't care much for official-ness when it isn’t reaching the people who are affected by it,” he said.

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The Homepage is a print newspaper delivered monthly to households in Greater Hazelwood, Glen Hazel, Greenfield, Hays, New Homestead, Lincoln Place and The Run. Hazelwood Initiative, Inc., a community-based nonprofit, publishes The Homepage through a grant from the City of Pittsburgh and advertising revenue from local businesses and organizations. The mission of Hazelwood Initiative, as a community-based development corporation, is to build a stronger Hazelwood through inclusive community development. Sonya Tilghman, Executive Director of Hazelwood Initiative, Inc. (she/her) Juliet Martinez, Managing Editor of The Homepage (they/them) Sarah Kanar, Layout and Design of The Homepage(she/her)

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