Grant Given to Study Air Pollution Monitoring in Chicago

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Seven Chicago organizations and three Kansas State University researchers have received a $750,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to investigate whether affordable portable air pollution monitoring devices could enhance air quality in Chicago.

Chicago communities are most at risk for poor air quality, which can directly impact their health. With this latest study, these communities will soon have the opportunity to take part in their own air quality monitoring.

The "Shared Air/Shared Action: Community Empowerment through Low-cost Air Pollution Monitoring," project is one of the six parallel ‘EPA Science to Achieve Results’ grants awarded across the country.

The project will engage Chicago's environmental justice communities - regions that share an inconsistent amount of the risk in pollution and contamination from modern society and industrialization. A pilot study will be done by the Kansas State research team in winter 2016, followed by a complete study in spring 2017.

In a crowded city, many people end up living next to landfills, major highways or industrial areas. Studies have shown that people living in environmental justice, lower-income, minority communities adjacent to such pollution sources have historically experienced higher pollution levels.

Wendy Griswold, Project Manager, Kansas State University

The researchers believe that communities will become more involved in improving their environmental surroundings if relevant technical and scientific tools are provided to them. Chicago's industrialized history and frequent citations regarding air quality make this city suitable for testing the researchers' theory.

According to the grant proposal, asthma is present in 17 to 25% of children in Chicago's Little Village neighborhood. Griswold believes that closer ambient monitoring stations could benefit this neighborhood and other similar neighborhoods.

"When you involve people in a significant way in addressing or defining their problems, then the solutions are much more sustainable and actually address the problem," said Griswold, who has a background in public education and outreach services.

The project will engage the Chicago area's South Loop, Little Village, Riverdale, and East Side communities staying close to pollution sources such as landfills, vehicle diesel emissions¸ metal shredders, coal ash repositories, etc. These communities also lack sufficient ambient air monitoring stations. As part of the project, low-cost portable sensors and appropriate technical assistance will be provided to the communities.

Chicago-based Respiratory Health Association has noted that vehicle exhaust, particularly from older diesels, is a significant health threat to many at-risk communities in the Chicago region. Many people die each year because of poor air quality, so if you improve the air quality, there will be health benefits.

Larry Erickson, Professor, Kansas State University

The project will encourage cross-community collaboration and educate adults, which according to the researchers will enhance environmental surroundings and promote beneficial policy decisions.

Access to low-cost air pollution monitoring devices will allow people to make better-informed decisions, such as improving local conditions and choosing the best transportation to cut down pollution, said Erickson.

"Transportation is one of the significant sources of pollution for these inner-city communities," Erickson said. "In an urban area, the air is generally much better on Sunday morning than when people are going to work during the weekdays. If communities can understand the dynamics, they can take precautionary measures to reduce the risks they face."

The research team has set the following goals for the project:

  • Examine cross-community coalition building associated with environmental health infrastructure and communication
  • Investigate whether studies by residents can provide a better understanding of pollution concentrations and thus devise strategies to track pollutants and study and communicate outcomes
  • Examine the ability to exploit resources and develop action plans to reduce exposure and alleviate health risks
  • Assess and document the process so that future scientists can learn from the analysis

Griswold, who also has a dual appointment at the University of Memphis, and Erickson will partner with Ronaldo Maghirang, professor of biological and agricultural engineering, Kansas State University.

The seven Chicago organizations taking part in the project are the Delta Institute, Alliance for a Greener South Loop, People for the Community Recovery, Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, Southeast Environmental Task Force, Respiratory Health Association, and the University of Illinois, Chicago.

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