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ee360 Fellow Elizabeth Spike on "Our Air, Your Future: Creating Clean Air Advocates"

Today, most people currently live in urban centers and those populations will continue to grow into the future. By 2100, there could be 10 billion people on the planet.  That is hard to imagine. A projection by the United Nations suggests two out of every three people will live in cities and urban centers by 2050. 

More people means a greater need for homes, transit, food, water, waste management, and green spaces. Building and retrofitting cities to meet these basic needs for a rapidly growing population is a challenge.  Because of global warming we now must add to the list of basic human needs climate action, flood mitigation, ways to reduce heat island effect, places to cool down, biodiversity to withstand natural and human caused disasters, energy efficiency, carbon zero power generation, and clean air.

Let’s not forget the last one.  Clean air is a co-benefit of reduced fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas production, both of which are a part of a growing number of climate action plans adopted by cities across the planet. As the planet warms, the number of ozone action days increase, sending more children, workers, the elderly, and the sick to emergency rooms for treatment from ambient air pollution exposure. Reducing our fossil fuel addiction can help us reduce the number of ozone-related ER visits.

Clean air is assumed to be a birthright of residents in the United States.  Yet, recent compromises were made recently by the US EPA administrator, Andew Wheeler, to replace scientists with pro-industry experts on the Clean Air Science Advisory Committee

As a result, it becomes unclear if the public can continue to benefit from objective, peer reviewed science to guide policy making. Compromises mean sacrifices to public and environmental health.  Compromises breed distrust. However, if there is an environmental success story it must be air. Both tropospheric and stratospheric air have improved due to reliable science and sound policy since the Clean Air Act passed. 

Tropospheric air is what we breathe.  Since the inception of the Clean Air Act in 1970, we have made significant progress cleaning our air---all the while growing our economy. Modern environmental policy proved it can be good for our economy, inspiring innovation and competition.  In 1987, world leaders in science and policy convened and collectively solved the problem of thinning ozone layer in the stratosphere. This international agreement called the Montreal Protocol ensured the thinning ozone layer has a chance to recover before the end of the century. Both events were great wins for the planet, people, wildlife, and prosperity.  We can close that chapter. Air pollution has been solved!  Well, not entirely.  

It is true we have made great progress to reduce air pollution---carbon monoxide, lead, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, ozone and particulates.  However, those reductions are national averages. Not all cities enjoy cleaner air compared to others in the US today. Two pollutants are harder to reduce; they are ozone and particulates (especially fine particulates, PM 2.5 microns). If you zoom in and look more closely, you discover some cities are non-attainment which means they have not reduced pollutant levels below allowable limits for ozone and/or particulates. And within cleaner cities there can be pockets of polluted air from various sources, like highways and industry. It is in these pockets where our front line and fence line neighbors live routinely exposed to air pollution that exacerbates asthma and heart and lung conditions. Air pollution can contribute to missed school days, reducing learning gains made in target populations.

This is where Our Air, Your Future: Creating Clean Air Advocates comes into focus.  It is an action project I am implementing as an ee360 NAAEE Fellow in the metropolitan Washington DC area.  Schools and sites from the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia (known locally as the DMV) are collaborating during this school year.  Each school is collecting campus ozone and particulates quarterly to represent air samples from each season. Students are graphing and analyzing the data from their campus. They can compare weekday versus weekend air pollution, time of day, season, and geography.  Students also learn about the chemistry of ozone, the health impacts of ozone and fine particulates, the effect of weather and nearby pollution sources, how pollution is measured, and solutions to reduce campus pollutants.

The project is measuring ozone with an Aeroqual S-500 ozone sensor and particulates with the Purple Air sensor. Both sensors, tested by the South Coast Air Quality Management District AQ-SPEC, presented very good correlation to Federal Reference Methods for sensors in their price range. Dr. Han (scientist at the University of Texas School of Public Health) and I validated both sensors for their reliability and accuracy on a high school campus in Houston, Texas.  The Aerqoual sensor is an indoor handheld sensor priced at $1500. It must be sheltered from rain and snow, but it does not need calibration. The Purple Air sensor is an outdoor sensor that collects a range of particulate sizes. However, we are focusing on fine particulate matter or PM 2.5 due to the increasing evidence for a number of negative health impacts to the lungs, heart, and brain. The Purple Air sensor runs continuously on a wifi connection and pushes data to the web. You can see the Purple Air map here

The Purple Air map is an instant community engagement tool.  Most people are impressed with the global map feature. Pretty quickly you realize the value and importance of air as a global commons. Because of these cost, performance, and user friendly features, the public has shown a great interest in monitoring air.  In fact, the interest has such a broad reach that both sensors are being studied by state and federal environmental agencies. The need for local pollution monitoring is clear. The public wants clean air and worries about the inadequacies and underfunding of state and federal environmental protections e.g. limited number of monitors miles away from pollution sources like highways where schools are, too often, built.  The hope is these sensors can provide answers to the public about what they are breathing and is it safe.

After quarterly collection, students are expected to present proposals that seek to reduce campus ozone and particulates to community leaders from government, business, and nonprofits at a student conference. The  conference provides a safe and bold space for teens to collaborate with decision makers. Teens can develop confidence, exchange ideas with their peers and adults, and evolve into leaders. 

Why engage teens? Young people care about many issues but often do not know how to express themselves to effectively participate in a democracy.   Students can develop confidence about their data driven arguments to speak for themselves---how they wish to see their campus protected from air pollution.  The project can help students foster empathy, compassion, and respect for all, especially those for whom air pollution harms their health. 

The project seeks to transform student awareness to action.  For instance, it is inadequate to simply inform students about air quality. It is our duty as educators to help students protect their air resources. Too many people, young and old, do not appreciate the value of clean air until they cannot breathe.  I’ve asked many teens to count the number of breaths in one minute. It is usually the first step in developing an awareness of the air around you and beginning to understand your relationship to air. 

Awareness means a student observes ‘the air is polluted, and I am breathing polluted air’. Action means the same student applies her critical thinking and ethical thinking skills to address ways to reduce polluted air---’the air is polluted, I’m breathing polluted air, and I am going to do something about that.’ This project can help that student begin the journey of transforming awareness into action by committing herself to her community---building relationships and collaborating with various stakeholders---government, business, and nonprofit---to solve problems that affect everyone.  That is the definition of ethics.

Our Air, Your Future: Creating Clean Air Advocates is a step towards building a sense of place in young people who live in or near urban centers.  Investing in young people with the motivation and skills for successful civic engagement is critical to achieve ‘buy-in’ to fund and maintain the long term implementation of sustainable cities and communities. 

As humanity struggles to confront and navigate the short term major policy decisions about climate change, we must also continue to fight for clean air for all people and for all times.  That is the ethical path towards a just transition to cleaner and more sustainable future for our cities and communities. Hopefully, Our Air, Your Future: Creating Clean Air Advocates demonstrates itself to be worthy of this effort.

Elizabeth Spike

NAAEE ee360 Fellow                                                                           

October 2019