Revealing the Invisible: One activist's quest in Milwaukee

Clean air advocate Langston Verdin knew that heavy concentrations of airborne industrial, commercial, and vehicle pollutants were present in some neighborhoods in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and that they were likely leading to increased asthma prevalence and asthma attacks in vulnerable populations in these neighborhoods.

Asthma triggers typically can’t be seen, but they may result in mild to severe asthma attacks for people with asthma. Severe asthma attacks can lead to hospitalization and can even be life-threatening (1).

“We have a highway that runs right through Milwaukee and many of the poor health outcomes follow that highway, especially when it relates to respiratory health issues,” Langston said.  So he made it a mission to help activate asthma awareness throughout his community, setting out to uncover the sources of asthma triggers, turning to a proven, practical solution to help amplify his voice: data collected with IQAir air quality monitors.

 And recently, the impact of Canadian wildfires on Milwaukee's air quality has heightened the urgency of monitoring efforts in the area. These events have sparked greater public interest and awareness in air quality issues, highlighting the importance of real-time monitoring. “The smoke came and really stuck around,” Langston said. “It brought air quality to the forefront of our minds.”

Langston Verdin and an IQAir Outdoor air quality monitor in Riverwest

Langston Verdin and an IQAir Outdoor air quality monitor in Riverwest neighborhood, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Severe asthma attacks can lead to hospitalization and can be life-threatening.

A focus on asthma in children

Langston first got involved in community clean air activism in 2019 as the Director of Strategic Partnerships at the Children’s Health Alliance of Wisconsin. He managed the Asthma Coalition, a subgroup of the Alliance.

The Asthma Coalition focused on forming partnerships with schools, childcare centers, and other sites, teaching best practices to help mitigate asthma’s causes and effects.

Poor air quality in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on January 25, 2023

Poor air quality in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on January 25, 2023. A MKE FreshAir Collective maintained air quality monitor measured elevated concentrations of air pollutants. Source: IQAir.

Langston knew that accessing better data would help confirm elevated air pollution levels in vulnerable and affected communities.

Building on his earlier experiences and insights gained from working with the Asthma Coalition, Langston has since expanded his focus. His current initiative, the MKE FreshAir Collective, represents a natural progression of his commitment to clean air.

Langston's latest initiative involves analyzing air quality data to correlate with health outcomes. This effort aims to advocate for public health policies that address air quality concerns, especially in vulnerable communities. 

The urgency of Langston's mission became even more apparent with the 2023 Canadian wildfires, which drastically affected Milwaukee's air quality. "Milwaukee got lots of drifting wildfire smoke,” he said. “Everyone wanted to know what was happening.”​

This further underscored the importance of the real-time monitoring efforts led by the MKE FreshAir Collective, as residents were visually confronted with poor air quality for days.

Why air quality monitoring matters

Identifying source contaminants is only one piece of the puzzle.

Air quality monitoring is a powerful tool that can raise community awareness about unhealthy concentrations of airborne pollutants. Residents can be alerted when poor air quality poses a health threat. Air quality monitoring provides communities with a real-time view of air quality degradation, empowering people to react by closing windows, wearing masks, or running an air purifier.

The call to action

Langston was initially inspired to become an air quality data contributor when he watched an environmental catastrophe unfolding half a world away. He was watching a news report on Australia’s extreme and record-breaking bushfires of 2019 and 2020. In the report, he saw that air quality was being mapped using the IQAir AirVisual map.

He remembers the impact of seeing the situation unfold: “I was intrigued by being able to see the air quality and how bad it was getting in real time.”

Clean air for kids

While working with the Asthma Coalition, Langston prioritized working with schools and childcare centers because “the younger you are, the more vulnerable you are to poor air quality.”

Research bears this out. According to a review of studies published in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, asthma isn’t evenly distributed. Children in crowded urban environments are more likely to develop asthma and experience greater asthma-induced morbidity (2).

Children in crowded urban environments are more likely to develop asthma and experience greater asthma-induced morbidity.

What triggers asthma?

Knowing what triggers asthma and when asthma triggers are in the air can help reduce attacks and save lives. While asthma triggers can vary between children, asthma triggers can include (3):

Student development and education can also be impacted by asthma. Asthma is both a leading cause of chronic illness and school absenteeism in the United States (4)(5).

From awareness to action

Working with the Coalition, while educating school administrators about how to make their site more asthma-friendly, Langston was able to ignite action further to team up.

Langston has been particularly concerned with areas on the northwest of Milwaukee, a predominantly African American community, and the near south side, a largely Hispanic community. African American and Hispanic communities, especially in Milwaukee, have been identified as carrying the highest incidents of childhood asthma prevalence in the state (6).

Air quality monitoring gives those Milwaukee communities a real time view of air quality degradation in the community.

Broadening the project’s scope

As the project progressed, Langston felt that a broader coalition of clean air activists was needed to maximize its effectiveness and potential. That was when he founded the MKE FreshAir Collective.

The MKE FreshAir Collective own and maintain outdoor air quality monitors in twelve different Milwaukee neighborhoods:

There are more monitors on the way, and, since its inception, the MKE FreshAir Collective has seen a significant increase in followers and engagement. Community workshops and social media campaigns have been pivotal in spreading awareness about air quality issues.

"We’ve seen the followers of our air monitors skyrocket from around 6,000 to almost 9,000,” Langston said. More followers means more people are getting notifications on their phones when air quality worsens. “This means more people can act with caution and protect their health."

Milwaukee air quality monitoring: what’s next

Langston continues to take an active role in community health. One of his areas of interest is utilizing a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) grant to monitor and clean the air in Milwaukee’s homeless shelters.

MKE FreshAir Collective was recently establishing as a non-profit. Langston focuses his energy on air pollution data collection and source mitigation, as well as collaborating with other organizations.

“We've got a lot of partners in the Milwaukee area who are passionate about a lot of this work,” Langston said.

He believes that every school and childcare center would benefit from air quality monitoring.

Langston continues to make connections, including working with the University of Wisconsin Madison where he will be consulting on a NASA-funded study researching real-time, community-level nitrogen dioxide emissions.

Recognition for Efforts: The MANDIs

Further validating his efforts, in early 2023, Langston and the MKE FreshAir Collective was awarded “Runner-Up” in the Community Health category at the prestigious Milwaukee Area Neighborhood Development Initiatives awards, (“the MANDIs”, for short).

"It's a really big deal in the nonprofit space here in Milwaukee," Langston shared. This nomination reflects the significant impact his work has had on the local community and the broader public health sector.

Langston’s work has also gained momentum through collaborations with the University of Wisconsin Madison and NASA, where he was involved in studies researching real-time, community-level PM2.5 and nitrogen dioxide emissions. These partnerships have opened doors for grant applications and research projects, broadening the scope of the initiative.

Currently, Langston and the MKE FreshAir Collective are focused on expanding their monitoring network and enhancing community education. For 2024, the Collective has a goal of placing 10 more monitors in the community, bringing further light to Milwaukee’s air quality picture.

The success and recognition of the MKE FreshAir Collective, evident in the substantial increase in monitor followers and the prestigious MANDIs recognition, pave the way for Langston's future aspirations. Looking ahead, he plans to continue his efforts to bring awareness around air quality improvement and activate his community to work toward policy change.

The takeaway

Langston’s activism and dedication to improving Milwaukee air quality provides a significant benefit to his community. Schools, daycare centers, and citizens who download a free app to monitor their air quality receive alerts when pollutants and asthma triggers are a threat.

Setting up a network of air quality monitors is a great goal – and so is monitoring air quality at school sites and in your own neighborhood. As Langston has demonstrated, anyone with the passion to protect their community’s air quality can become an air quality data contributor.

As Langston put it, air quality monitoring “creates a more robust system of knowledge so that everyone can be informed about how air quality is influencing our individual lives, our families, and our communities. We can inform public health strategies and drive policy changes for cleaner air. Ultimately, air quality monitoring empowers communities to make a difference in their quality of life.”

Langston's transition from a concerned citizen to a key player in Milwaukee’s air quality movement shows the immense power of individual initiative and community action. Utilizing the straightforward tool of air quality monitors, he has significantly impacted the community, turning simple data into a powerful voice for those in need of cleaner air.

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