Clearing the air: Brown study focuses on local air quality

UP IN THE AIR: Grace Berg, left, Breathe Providence project coordinator, and Meredith Hastings, Brown University professor, check on one of the group’s air sensors in the Jewelry District in Providence. 
UP IN THE AIR: Grace Berg, left, Breathe Providence project coordinator, and Meredith Hastings, Brown University professor, check on one of the group’s air sensors in the Jewelry District in Providence. 

Rhode Island may be the smallest of the 50 states, but it stands out among the rest in at least one category: asthma rates.

Approximately 12.6% of Rhode Islanders suffer from asthma, which is one of the highest rates in the country, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Data also shows asthma rates within Providence are higher among people of color and those in lower-income communities who live near sources of pollution.

Now a team of Brown University researchers are on a mission to better understand the air quality in Providence and its effects on residents. Led by professor Meredith Hastings, the team calling itself Breathe Providence has deployed dozens of monitors to neighborhoods throughout Providence since launching last year.

“This is really tied to community goals in Providence of wanting to better understand the air quality here and how much it is connected to disparities and health outcomes,” said Hastings, who also serves as deputy director of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society.

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The study is funded by a grant from the philanthropic global initiative Clean Air Fund and uses monitors that cost just a fraction of the existing sensors run by the government, which are priced in the thousands of dollars. The monitors test for seven pollutants and use sensor nodes from the University of California Berkeley’s Berkeley Environmental Air-quality and CO2 Network.

With the data collected from these monitors, the study’s goal is to provide community members and policymakers with information they can use to advocate for data-driven environmental policies.

“We tend to neglect that a one-size-fits-all policy doesn’t work for everyone,” Hastings said. “That’s the thing that’s powerful about this approach because if you can better understand the local effects on air quality, then you have a better chance to control it.”

Breathe Providence’s work is also deeply rooted in environmental justice as it intends to contribute to the city’s Climate Justice Plan. The group has also partnered with several organizations, including the Racial ­Environmental Justice Committee of Providence, American Lung Association in Rhode Island and the R.I. Department of Health.

Using information from the city’s Climate Justice Plan and input from its community partners, the team began by identifying areas where populations most vulnerable to air pollution are located. Then, the group created a geographic index using additional demographic data, including asthma rates, race and income levels to map out where the first air monitors should be deployed, says Grace Berg, the study’s project manager who graduated from Brown in 2021.

Within these areas, Berg says, many monitors were placed in locations where community members gather, such as libraries and schools.

“We wanted to focus on places where people have been pointing out forever that air quality is a problem and that it needs to be studied further,” Berg said. “We also wanted to monitor in places that were relevant, where people were gathering, or kids were playing or learning.”

Berg says some of the areas of concern were in the Washington Park and the South Providence neighborhoods, which are adjacent to the Port of Providence, as well as communities near major roadways such as Interstate 95.

With the port serving as one of the largest deep-water wharves in New England and many vehicles traveling through the city along I-95 daily, these neighborhoods have been plagued with several kinds of pollutants for decades. These areas are also where asthma rates are noticeably higher than in other Providence neighborhoods.

However, activists say people of color, immigrants and those with lower incomes have been pushed into these polluted areas in many cases because of long-standing discriminatory policies.

“When you think about how those industries are allowed to continue polluting, that’s the impact of the subtlety and clarity of racism,” said April Brown, director of the Racial Environmental Justice Committee of Providence. “It’s a direct response to the dismissal of those people’s quality of life and the air that they breathe.”

But with Breathe Providence’s community-focused approach building upon the existing awareness efforts, Brown shares hope with fellow environmental justice activists that change is on the horizon.

Now that the sensors have collected over a year’s worth of information, the team will begin analyzing the numbers. This includes calibrating the data to adjust for meteorological or atmospheric changes. Then, once this process is complete, the researchers hope to present the information for community members to use to advocate for environmental policies.

Berg says some of these analyses could be available as soon as this fall. In the meantime, the team has hosted outreach events where it teaches people how to build their own air filters and raises awareness about local air quality.

“We’re really interested in connecting with the community and answering their questions with our research,” Berg said.

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