In the US, historical redlining limited where people of color could live by denying loans and insurance to individuals based on their race. As a result, many people of color were forced to live in neighborhoods with poorer air quality. Though the Clean Air Act, introduced in 1963, has effectively reduced overall levels of harmful pollutants in the US, inequity in air quality persists to this day.
Typical air quality assessments tend to blur significant sources of pollutants for people living or working in a particular neighborhood, by averaging their data among that of the greater city or county. Pollution hot spots can impact the health of the people who live or work near them, possibly leading to cardiovascular, lung, and other diseases and shortening residents’ lives. CEE professors Cesunica Ivey and Joshua Apte are among a group of scientists working to leverage more granular air quality measurement technologies, to allow individuals to attach hard numbers to their experience and help them advocate for targeted pollution mitigation efforts.
Recent advances in air pollution measurement and modeling techniques -- including techniques under development by Ivey and Apte -- allow researchers to reveal air pollution disparities and their resulting impacts on communities with increasingly fine-grained resolution. Examples of these tools include wearable sensors, networks of low-cost monitors installed on buildings, specially-equipped Google Street View cars, and pollution-measuring satellites. With these technologies, researchers map air pollution and compare it to health and demographic data from neighborhoods to understand how air quality disparities affect specific communities.
According to Ivey, the future of air quality monitoring will involve increased access to localized predictions based on data from a combination of measurement technologies on the ground and in the skies. She envisions a portal similar to Google Maps’ traffic data, allowing anyone to look up air pollution history and forecasts to learn about air quality where they live and work.
With increasingly localized data, community groups can better advocate for business and government to mitigate air quality disparities and help improve the health of cities' more vulnerable residents.
Click here for C&EN's cover story featuring Professors Ivey and Apte.