Backyard Talk

New Citizen Science Resources for Environmental Justice

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.”

Backyard Talk

Citizen Science: Tracking The Air We Breathe

Smartphone apps and portable gadgets have made it possible for individuals to get up-to-the-minute information on their own vital signs and activity levels. What if we could just as easily monitor environmental impacts on our health, tracking real-time data on pollution exposures? Development of portable sensing devices is making this individualized approach to air quality monitoring a possibility for people worldwide, and is fueling citizen science initiatives to more comprehensively track pollution on a global scale.

The Air Quality Egg, the Smart Citizen Kit, and the DustDuino are just a few examples of this new type of gadget, which can measure levels of particulate matter and other pollutants like nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide. Nature has dubbed these devices “Sensors for the People.”  Data from these devices may be able to fill in the gaps left by official monitoring networks, whose sensors are, according to Nature, “sophisticated but sparsely distributed.”

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While data from official monitoring networks is important from a regulatory standpoint, it holds little relevance for individuals’ health. In fact, fixed sensors are generally inadequate for predicting environmental exposures, because people pass through so many different microenvironments throughout their days. A study at Columbia University fitted students with portable sensors and found that the majority of their exposure to airborne metals came from riding on the subway, rather than from breathing the air in their homes. Data from portable sensors can provide more pertinent information on individual exposures in the home, in transit, and in the workplace than the values obtained at the nearest monitoring station.

According to Nature, these approaches are “part of an effort to democratize air-quality monitoring so that it no longer remains solely in the domain of governments and academic researchers.” This may be a powerful shift in monitoring, particularly for areas facing both air pollution and a lack of readily-available data . Wired recently reported on David Lu, a UC Berkeley student from Shanghai who has collaborated with other students to develop a sensor and launch a startup for monitoring air quality in China, where reports have surfaced that some governments are blocking pollution data from being publicly available.

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Clarity Sensor (Image from Wired)

These portable sensors allow people to collect air quality data on their own personal environments, but data can also be aggregated to create more accurate pollution maps. That is the next phase of Lu and his fellow students’ project; essentially, they will be crowdsourcing data from China and other highly polluted areas to make air pollution mapping easier.

While research is taking off at some institutions and public enthusiasm is growing, the atmospheric science community has had a more tempered response to these devices. “Monitoring air-pollution levels is far more involved than the manufacturers and suppliers of cheap sensors suggest,” Ben Barratt, a British Air Quality Scientist said to Nature, citing differences in temperature and humidity as some of the complicating factors that make it difficult to cross-compare results between devices. Part of the reason why there are few official monitoring sites is because they take a lot of maintenance and care to ensure the data is accurate.

Though the data generated from these sensors does not currently hold up under sufficient scientific scrutiny for use in a regulatory context, citizen sensing projects are still in their early stages, and future technical developments may give crowdsourced pollution readings more clout. In the meantime, citizen scientists are developing the frameworks necessary for widespread monitoring of one of the biggest environmental health threats of our time.