Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1970, according to a News & Observer article. Today, data supply by the states to the EPA remains incomplete and inaccurate and it is getting worse with cuts in many state agencies; NC DEQ suffers some of the deepest cuts. The article mentions that, to the American Lung Association, beefing up air monitoring is crucial because many communities are in the dark about basic air quality.
This is where Clean Air Carolina (CAC) steps in to make a difference. Over the summer of 2016, they launched the citizen science Clean Air Zones monitoring effort in Charlotte: individuals obtain hand-held air quality monitoring equipment from AirBeam and AirCasting, which measures particulate matter (PM) in real time. This data is connected to a cellular phone or tablet and from there uploaded to the website AirCasting.org, in an open sourced platform, open to the public.
After seeing the real world data of uptown Charlotte PM at the citizen science kick-off event in July 2016, I decided to try out the nifty equipment and see the results in my daily life. I am now part of a larger group of individuals collecting as much data as possible on PM in Charlotte Mecklenburg. Starting September 2016, for a few months, June Blotnick, Executive Director, and Terry Lansdell, Program Director of CAC, are trusting my teenagers and me with their equipment to measure PM.
This technology that allows individualized and mobile data collection of PM was not possible 10 years ago, because technology back then was not developed enough to manage, share, and process large quantities of real time individual data points. CAC is pioneering the opportunities this technology including data management and processing offers in Charlotte with the citizen science Clean Air Zones monitoring effort.
PM is the mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets in the air. Examples are dust, dirt, soot, smoke – these are all able to be inhaled – ending up in your lungs, potentially damaging them, and not necessarily visible. The environmental concern with PM is that, while we can chose which unhealthy food or water to consume, we can’t choose the air we breathe.
My son and I went about our lives in SouthPark measuring PM by walking, biking and driving by bus or car our regular routes to school, the grocery store, and the park.
What we found out: typically, the air quality in our surroundings and on most days is good, between 4µg/m3 and 9µg/m3 (µg/m3 is micro grams PM per cubic meter of air. This put us in the green code, which ranges from zero to 12 and is categorized as safe for humans-,even when waiting on our bikes for the light to turn green at congested intersections.
The worst data points were when our neighbors replaced a roof at 52µg/m3, which put us in code orange, which ranges from 36 to 55 and is categorized as unhealthy for sensitive groups. At my son’s school’s bus lot (peaking at 25µg/m3), behind our lawn mower (peaking at 23µg/m3), when our neighbors made a cosy firepit (around 20µg/m3) and on a dusty mound densely filled with ninth graders at their high school football game (at 20µg/m3), those four levels put us in code yellow, which ranges from 13 to 35 and is considered moderate and can be unhealthy for sensitive groups.
Sept. 29 indicated an ambient air quality problem: We measured 12µg/m3 no matter where we stood, which put us in the moderate yellow category. CAC’s Calvin Cupini explained that this matched data collected by four other stationary monitoring sites, hence the “ambient” problem. You can view other fixed sites and see for yourself how the air quality changes throughout the day and see first-hand on the AirCasting.org site/fixed tab, the levels that PM pollution can reach without anyone becoming aware without devices like these.
Cupini explained that the data my son and I uploaded can not only be correlated to data collected by other CAC partners, but can also be compared to that of Charlotte Mecklenburg Health Department’s two monitoring stations. This could help explain, for example, the reasons for ambient air quality problem mentioned above. Currently, CAC is still in the beta phase of working with citizen scientists to test the equipment and monitor the data until they fully understand the capacity of processing the data.
Photo: Clean Air Carolina