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Diane Bailey’s Blog

We have the right to know what is in the air we breathe - A guest blog from Dominic Pierceall

Diane Bailey

Posted June 17, 2013 in Environmental Justice, Health and the Environment

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This past semester I had the good fortune of working with a group of students through a “Service Learning Project” in a class on Environmental Justice at the University of California Berkeley.  The work focused on Community Air Monitoring, exploring new technology that makes air monitors more accessible to people.  The following is a guest blog from one of the students, Dominic Pierceall, about how particulate pollution affects vulnerable communities. Another post reporting the results of the group project will follow.

Thumbnail image for dominic pierceall UCB.jpg 

If you live in an urban area, near factories, near refineries, close to highways, or in an industrial area, there’s a good chance that you are being exposed to harmful levels of air pollutants.  These pollutants are tested for on a broad, regional scale by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other agencies, but it turns out that there is not a lot of testing done in some communities where pollution may be the highest. This is where community air monitoring can help inform residents how safe their air may be or if they are breathing in high levels of harmful pollutants into the air.

One of the pollutants that public health experts are concerned with in particular is known as “particulate matter” (PM). 

What is particulate matter?

According to Hamilton County, Ohio, “Thick, black smoke belching out of the exhaust pipes of vehicles... Swirls of dust picked up by the wind…Ash and soot coming from your campfire. These are all examples of particulate matter (PM).   PM is the term used for solid or liquid particles emitted to the air. Some particles are large enough to be seen, and others are so small they can only be detected with an electron microscope.”

Where does particulate matter come from?

Particulate matter can come from many sources.  Generally, any activity which involves burning of materials or any dust generating activities are sources of PM. Though some sources are natural, such as volcanoes, humans create huge quantities of particulate matter, such as smoke stacks at factories and power plants. We have control over some sources like wood-burning fireplaces, our cars and SUVs, gas-powered lawn mowers, leaf blowers, and weed whackers – all of these produce particulate pollution.

Most industrial areas that have high PM levels are also situated near low-income housing and are disproportionately communities of color.  Exposure to certain levels and types of PM are known to cause asthma, cancer, and many other health impacts.

We as citizens need to take a stand and find out what is in the air we breathe so we can decide where it is safe for our families to live.  Community Air Monitoring Projects can help people fill in the gaps where there is no official government air monitoring.  Not everyone has the ability to do this, but thanks to advances in technology we can now purchase handheld or portable air quality monitors.  These kinds of projects are springing up all over the country with diverse resources available online

Also, as a community we can request legislators to help us enforce our right to clean air, not only by cracking down on the companies responsible for high pollution but also by putting pressure on government agencies that are responsible for testing.  And, if we all contribute as a community and test the air, report the data, and educate others, we can provide a safer environment not only for ourselves, but for our children and the generations to come.  

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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