New Citizen Science Resources for Environmental Justice

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Citizen science initiatives for environmental monitoring are enabling communities to take their health into their own hands by conducting grassroots monitoring projects. Some of the most recent advances have occurred in the arena of air quality monitoring, providing more readily available resources and training for communities to fight for environmental justice using science.

On July 9th, the EPA held a Community Air Monitoring Training Workshop, sharing tools and trainings to interested community groups on how to start and maintain community monitoring initiatives, and covering technologies that make monitoring more simple and affordable. The training workshop focused specifically on Next Generation Air Monitoring (NGAM) technology, which increasingly includes smaller, more cost-effective sensors and monitoring techniques. Videos and resources from the training are available at the Air Sensor Toolbox for Citizen Scientists website.

Low-income communities and communities of color are overburdened by environmental health threats, and air quality is no exception to this rule. Air pollution may play a key role in increased rates of asthma and other respiratory problems within low-income communities of color, which compound with other stressors to profoundly decrease quality of life for these populations. Many low-income communities are located in proximity to emission sources including highways and power plants, placing these communities on the frontlines of environmental exposure.

As the EPA states in their Roadmap for Next Generation Air Monitoring techniques, traditional air quality monitoring relies on stationary equipment, which capture data only on the air quality in their immediate vicinity. Not only does this method miss small variations in air quality between neighborhoods and even streets, it fails to consider indoor sources which are highly relevant for determining individual exposures. Traditional air quality monitoring, with its focus on average air quality values, fails to capture the full, cumulative burdens faced by our most environmentally vulnerable communities.  By using more portable sensors to gather environmental data, citizens and community groups can gather data that better reflects that spatial variation in air pollution, while gaining a better understanding of their individual exposures.

While the Air Sensor Toolbox is a valuable addition to citizen science resources, it is far from perfect. Because these devices are lower-tech and new to the monitoring field, they cannot usually provide data that holds up in the regulatory sphere. While I am excited to see monitoring technology in the hands of communities, it would be an unfortunate outcome if they grow to bear the burden for producing environmental data that fails to be acknowledged as legitimate in the legislative sphere. Additionally, in their post advertising the videos, an EPA writer states  that several of these devices cost less than a thousand dollars. While significantly cheaper than high-tech laboratory equipment, this cost may still places monitoring devices out of reach of the most vulnerable communities who could most benefit from these resources. As a scientist, I hope to see more outreach projects in the future from both government agencies and academic institutions focused specifically on building capacity for citizen science and providing resources to make these initiatives even more accessible

More resources, including videos of trainings from the recent workshop, are available at EPA’s website.

For outstanding examples of citizen science in action, visit the website of the Global Community Monitor, and read about communities tackling air pollution with low-cost “bucket brigades.”

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