How to improve air quality in your neighborhood

Many times, a movement for better neighborhood air quality begins with a concerned individual. Will you be the next person who makes a difference? It’s not as difficult as you might think. Thankfully, there are many models for success to learn from.

Defining your neighborhood’s air quality problem

If you suspect air pollution in your neighborhood is an issue, find out if there is any current data about local pollution levels. There are public air quality monitoring stations across the U.S. and the world. However, many places still lack the data required to track air pollution.

Local residents are a valuable resourcefor identifying pollution sources.

Start by looking at air pollution monitoring websites. For example, IQAiroffers free air quality data for more than 80,000 locations around the world.You may require air quality data for an exact location, in which case you will need an air quality monitor. By gathering data, you can help pinpoint where air pollution is originating. You can even help your neighbors by registering an AirVisual Outdoor air quality monitor as a designated public outdoor station. Learn more about joining the global network of air quality data here.

Can pollution information in government databases be trusted?

Government air monitoring stations generally use reliable equipment and are highly accurate. However, air pollution measurements can vary within relatively short distances, due to the location of the station, prevailing winds, and proximity to air pollution sources. Sometimes, it’s necessary to take action in gathering accurate and complete data sets. For example, the Los Angeles Collaborative for Health and Justice conducted a research project called Ground Truthing. The community-based, participatory project sought to fill in data gaps they felt resulted in an inaccurate picture of the environmental exposure and health risks many neighborhoods face. Local community residents were guided by research professionals in gathering data about toxic emitters.

Key findings include:

  • There are many more hazardous facilities near residential neighborhoods than recorded in state and federal government databases.
  • State databases contain significant location errors of emission sources.
  • Particulate matter (PM2.5) levels regularly exceed the regulatory standards set by law.

These are just a few of gaps in data that the collaborative project identified. Local residents are indeed a valuable source for identifying pollution sources and monitoring pollution levels.1

How a “citizen scientist” took action

A resident of Tonawanda, N.Y. took action where regulators failed. After years of foul-smelling air from a nearby industrial plant, inaction from New York state officials, and declining personal health, a former mail carrier felt no choice but to become a citizen scientist and activist.

A former mail carrier felt no choice but to become a citizen scientist and activist.

A small group of Tonawanda residents started using buckets and hand-held vacuums to take air samples. They placed plastic bags inside buckets, connected a hose to the bag, and used either camping pumps or small electric vacuums to collect air samples. The samples were taken to state and independent labs for evaluation and showed extremely high levels of benzene, a known human carcinogen. This information was the catalyst for state regulators to formally blame Tonawanda Coke for releasing high levels of benzene and other dangerous chemicals in violation of the Clean Air Act.2

There is now a “Bucket Brigade” movement of citizen scientists who are taking their neighborhood air quality monitoring into their own hands. The buckets are now an EPA-approved way for residents to take air samples and have them tested for over 100 air pollutants.3

Talk to your neighbors

Once you have a case built for the source of pollution, find out if the pollution is adversely affecting local residents. You can do this by holding a public community forum inviting people to share their stories, or by going door-to-door and asking residents to fill out a health survey. You can also approach a university to share your concerns and invite them to do a study.

For an example of how to this process can work, you can look to the environmental organization Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice (CCAEJ). They were able to win a settlement in an environmental justice case using the following steps:

  1. Partnered with a local university to do a health study of residents living near a rail yard suspected of causing sickness.
  2. Data revealed that residents near the rail yard experienced elevated rates of cancers, and that the children at a nearby elementary school had a shocking 47 percent asthma rate.
  3. A follow-up study measured pollution levels from the rail yard.
  4. It was found that the rail yard was releasing levels of air pollution that violated the Clean Air Act.
  5. This data was then used to build a case which resulted in a settlement to help the community.4

Building a movement

If there is no local community organization dedicated to environmental justice issues, you will need to talk to your fellow community members to get organized. Begin by educating residents about what you have discovered. You’ve identified an issue, now you must share this knowledge. You and your fellow residents can then figure out what a better community might look like. Some call this a community platform.

With you and your fellow residents educated,start looking for elected officials to be allies.

Your community platform may include recommendations from the study produced by your college or university partner. This might include things like buffer zones between pollution sources and residents, a freeze on new pollution-causing development, and planting trees to absorb air pollutants.

With you and your fellow residents educated, you can start looking for elected officials and other community allies. Consider beginning with your city council members. Call their offices and ask for meetings. When you show up with informed community members who are concerned about their health, you can find yourself at the table when decisions are being made.

It’s a marathon, not a sprint

Remember that change does not always come quickly. The key to community improvement is persistence. Think of it as a marathon, not a sprint. And when you feel like your neighbors and you are too small to take on large corporate interests, recall what Margaret Mead said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”5

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