If you live in a town or city where industrial facilities are emitting chemicals into the air, there is plenty of reason to wonder:
How is this affecting me?
“People living near the nation’s oil refineries, including Philadelphia neighborhoods near Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES), are often subjected to noxious smells,” says Gwen Ottinger, PhD, associate professor in the College of Arts and Sciences and director of the Fair Tech Collective, a research group committed to using social science theory and methods to inform the development of technologies that foster environmental justice. “Many experience coughs and other respiratory symptoms they suspect are linked to pollution. “
Most of these communities are left to wonder what toxins might be in the air they breathe, because the ambient air monitoring currently being conducted is limited in scope and timeliness of the data it can provide. And people in areas that do have access to real-time air quality data rarely use it because it is complicated and lacks context.
Ottinger and colleagues at Carnegie Mellon are working to make real-time data easier for communities to access and understand, in hopes that they will use it to push industry and government to reduce pollution and help protect community health.
Their work is centered in the San Francisco Bay area where three communities — Crockett, Rodeo and Richmond — located near oil refineries are in the unusual position of having access to real-time measurements of chemical concentrations in their air.
“The monitoring data were publicly available, but not truly accessible,” says Ottinger.
Funded by a CAREER award from that National Science Foundation, Ottinger set out to make the existing data explorable and interactive. The Air Watch Bay Area website and reporting app, a new suite of digital tools designed to reveal and act on air pollution, is the result. Designed in collaboration with Bay Area residents and with the help of the Community Robotics, Education, and Technology Empowerment Lab (CREATE Lab) at Carnegie Mellon University, the website makes historical data visible and enables residents to annotate it with their own observations. Their goal is to get residents to explore the data, so they can better understand how air quality affects health.
“There wasn’t a place where people could both look at instantaneous data, and access the historical data and document their own symptoms and observations,” Ottinger said. “By putting qualitative and quantitative data in one place, we hope to better understand the impact of refinery emissions on communities and help affected communities hold refineries accountable for their pollution.”
The Air Watch Bay Area website and reporting app expand the infrastructure available to citizen scientists working to address environmental injustices. In the long term, this innovation helps establish best practices for providing air monitoring results to the public—in a form that disadvantaged communities can use to advocate for improved environmental conditions. It also has the potential to improve our knowledge of what levels of chemicals are dangerous for people’s health.
This has already happened in one case. During a big hydrogen sulfide (H2S) release in 2012, air monitors around the Philips 66 refinery in Rodeo showed 12 parts per million (ppm) in the air. Residents weren’t told to shelter in place, because the Community Warning System (CWS) level was 15 ppm, but many still got sick from the high levels. Subsequently, residents worked with the county government to lower the CWS level to 10 ppm — reflecting what they had learned from first-hand experience.
“They discovered that residents were affected at 12 ppm because the release was big enough to warrant a community meeting, where people shared their experiences,” Ottinger says. “We hope that by giving people a place online to publicly record their experiences, we can promote that same kind of learning for the lower levels of chemicals that residents are experiencing on a regular basis.”
The website and app are equipped to expand to include additional data from the Bay area towns of Benicia, Martinez and Vallejo. Real-time air monitoring is becoming increasingly popular and new regulations in the Bay area and the state of California call for better context, heightening the importance of accessible data. Air Watch Bay Area is poised to be a model for other communities.