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Brown study Breathe Providence monitors local air quality

Researchers aim to fill gaps in Providence air pollution monitoring

<p>Courtesy of Vasu Jayanthi</p>

Courtesy of Vasu Jayanthi

To better understand the local distribution of air quality, University researchers are setting up air pollution monitors across Providence in a study called Breathe Providence. Funded by the Clean Air Fund, the study aims to provide communities — especially those of lower socioeconomic status — with data to inform pollution reduction initiatives. 

The United States began monitoring air pollution following the passage of the Clean Air Act of 1970, which “contributed significant improvements in our air quality across the country,” said Meredith Hastings, deputy director of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society and professor of environment and society and earth, environmental and planetary sciences. “But these benefits have not been seen by everyone.”

Currently, “air monitoring networks are spaced pretty far apart … which kind of generalizes over-exposure to air pollution from neighborhood to neighborhood,” Hastings said. Prior to the study, Providence only had one air quality monitor, which measured just two pollutants, she added.

Providence residents are also concerned that, due to its location, this monitor “isn’t capturing the air that is directly breathed by the most vulnerable populations in Providence: the people of color, the people of low-income backgrounds, the people of non-English speaking backgrounds,” Vasu Jayanthi ’23, an undergraduate researcher on the project, said.

Like many other cities across the country, it is these individuals of lower socioeconomic status that tend to be exposed to more pollution, she added. 

“There has been a big call by environmental advocates within the city of Providence for increased air quality monitoring to get a better sense of how these people are actually being affected by the pollution that’s being put out by industrial activity,” Jayanthi said.

Breathe Providence aims to contribute to the City of Providence’s Climate Justice Plan, which was “co-developed by the City of Providence’s Department of Sustainability and the Racial and Environmental Justice Committee of Providence” consists of policies intended to decrease inequities in pollution exposure among the city’s residents.

After hearing a talk from Monica Cortez, a member of the Racial and Environmental Justice Committee of Providence, Hastings spoke with Grace Berg ’21, an undergraduate in her lab at the time, about creating a project to address the lack of air pollution monitoring in Providence. Berg ultimately decided to make her senior thesis about why people should study Providence air pollution, Hastings said.

The goal of Breathe Providence is to “fill in the gaps of statewide monitoring” through a “look at air quality on the neighborhood scale in Providence,” Hastings explained. This can provide useful data for communities to inform pollution control initiatives, she added. 

Researchers have set up a network of 25 sensors “measuring continuous data on particulate matter, ozone, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and nitrous oxides,” Jayanthi said.

The sites are influenced by community input received through Breathe Providence’s organizational partners, which include the Office of Sustainability of the City of Providence and the Rhode Island Department of Health, Hastings added.

“The way we’ve sited our monitors is really geared towards community values — so placing monitors at elementary schools and libraries and where children in the community gather,” said Meg Fay ’23, an undergraduate researcher on the project. 

The researchers also placed monitors in the Washington Park and South Providence neighborhoods, which are near the Port of Providence and are of significant concern, Fay added. “There was a lot of interest in having better monitoring in areas that appear to have higher asthma rates … and higher concentrations of major pollution sources,” she added.

As the study progresses, the researchers plan to analyze data across their network of monitors to look at changes in air quality from neighborhood to neighborhood, alongside meteorology data, to examine air quality across weather and seasonal changes, Fay explained. This involves mathematically calibrating the data and adjusting for humidity and temperature in order to compare it to high-quality reference data from government sensors.

“A lot of our lessons so far are about the time it takes to do community-engaged work,” Hastings said. One of the main goals of the study is to have “Brown University directly engage in a positive way with the community (and) to use our resources to help community members understand the information that they're looking for,” Jayanthi added.

Many community groups “already know that their community is experiencing negative health impacts, but when they go to legislators, they (only) have their lived experiences” to share, Fay said.

“By giving them what we find in our research, (we can) make the data accessible to some of our community partners, so that they can use it to push for community action and legislation that they want,” Fay said.

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