At first glance, Ramses Diaz’s car seems like any other drive through New York City. Then I measure in the left gate. Attached to the inside of the dashboard was a map of New York and two large boxes on the trunk beam sent huge amounts of data to servers in California. I get inside with Diaz and off we go to track the air quality in Brooklyn.
In July, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced the launch of a mobile air quality and gas conservator monitoring project. The goal is to measure pollution levels in 10 regions: Niagara Falls, the Capital Region of the state, the Bronx, Manhattan, Rochester, Syracuse, Mount Vernon, Brooklyn, Queens and Hempstead.
The project is one of the city’s actions to achieve the goals of the New York Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which aims to cut emissions by 40 percent by 2030, said Adriana Espinoza, commissioner of equity and justice at the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).
Over the course of a year, the California-based tech company Aclima will collect air quality data from a fleet of 21 Google Street View vehicles, each named after famous musicians. These cars drive around all 10 areas, day in and day out. Ramses and I are currently in the Flash, for Grandmaster Flash, the hip-hop pioneer from the South Bronx.
Every second, the filter in the vehicle detects the air samples for the presence and concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5), nitrogen dioxide, ozone, carbon monoxide, methane, carbon dioxide, carbon black and benzene, among other pollutants. It is then attached to a wireless network that sends data to the west coast for analysis.
By the end of the year, the signed vehicles will have completed the journeys at least 20 times. This is due to changes in weather, congestion, industrial traffic and other atmospheric conditions that affect air quality.
Diaz, 49, a photographer from Venezuela became a driver because he needed to work. Still, he says, he feels a sense of purpose in his work. He knows the air is very polluted, “but you can’t see it,” he said. “If you have a child, you want to know the air quality, because maybe he could have asthma, you know?”
In its 2020 Community Air Survey, the New York City Health Department found that since 2009, the city’s levels of fine particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide and nitric oxide have declined 43, 39 and 56 percent, respectively. In March, the Environmental Protection Agency reported that emissions reductions have led to dramatic improvements in air quality not just in New York, but across the United States.
“These air quality improvements have resulted in many areas of the country meeting national air standards set to protect public health and the environment,” the agency said on its website.
But this is not the case in every community.
“The pollution we’re struggling with now is more hotspots,” said Eric Schaffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. He explained that while overall air quality is getting better, there are some things. Communities and neighborhoods where pollution levels are more intense.
As Diaz drives across the Brooklyn Bridge, the day begins to clear. The blue sky looks clean—but the situation is more complicated. “Brooklyn is very polluted,” Diaz said.
When Arif Ullah, 50, thinks about his childhood in Queens, he remembers that he and most of his friends had asthma. “I thought it was normal, you know?” he said. “I didn’t realize until later that it was due to exposure to air pollution.”
Currently, Ullah works as a social justice and environmental advocate for the South Bronx community organization Unit. “Heart disease, severe pain, diabetes, dementia. All these diseases are related to exposure to air pollution.
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A recent study found that eliminating PM 2.5 particles, about one-thirtieth the diameter of a human hair, emitted from fossil fuels and fires, and from dust and construction fires, would prevent more than 50,000 annual premature deaths in the country. Moreover, it would also prevent nearly 3,000 non-fatal heart attacks, 15,000 asthma-related emergency room visits and 3.68 million lost work days due to the disease.
“The quality of life in the community is severely diminished,” Ullah said, referring to the South Bronx. However, for many years, researchers and government agencies have come to environmental studies without involvement in the residency process. The Department of Environmental Conservation wanted to change that.
Since the beginning of the research project, DEC has made it its mission to work with communities. They developed a Justice Working Group with the Climate Justice Partnership, established an organization of representatives from environmental justice communities, and held community stakeholder meetings in each of the 10 locations before releasing the monitoring.
They introduced the project at the first meeting and then held a second meeting to get community feedback, Espinoza said. Some people were not hypnotized.
The South Bronx Unite initiative got involved because for years people have known they are breathing toxic air, but they don’t have the data to prove it.
The country has had the technology to measure air quality for decades, but until about ten years ago it was very expensive, explained Melissa Lunden, chief scientist at Climate. The EPA’s network of monitoring devices also has a known history of missing data, according to EPA data and independent monitoring organizations.
The agency has repeatedly failed to detect toxic emissions and the dangers of everyday pollution, and its monitors are unevenly dispersed across the country, according to major agencies. In 2020, about 120 million Americans lived in counties where the EPA did not have pollution monitors.
In addition, the concentration levels of contaminants, such as benzene, present in gasoline vary across short distances. A fixed air monitor can receive low levels in its range of coverage and not feel that high levels are occurring thousands of miles away.
“You’ll get a statement from an agent that says, ‘Oh, we measured it and we didn’t find a risk,'” Schaffer said.
The program should use the data Aclima collects to implement border monitoring projects, Schaffer emphasized. It always involves the perspective of the community around the planned issues because “big is not stupid”.
The information Aclima collects will help the Department of Environmental Conservation and communities have a clearer understanding of flood levels and craft specific solutions.
“We could see data that shows high levels of some pollutants in particular, but it doesn’t necessarily tell us what the source is,” said Jared Snyder, DEC’s acting commissioner for air resources, climate change, and energy.
DEC will also provide information on requesting public resources and incentives to offer communities, including incentives for electric trucks and construction funds for larger green spaces.
Ullah also hopes that information will be open and shared by communities. Even over time, institutions and researchers have reached out to the communities before but never after once their work is done, he said. Ullah said community activists want to be able to conduct more analysis on their own.
The South Bronx Unit is also working to use the Aclima research project to conduct its studies. The plan is to install fixed monitors at ground level in some neighborhood pollution hotspots to get all the data that was not collected before. The group recently applied to obtain a DEC grant to fund this project. “We’re going deeper. We’re going wider. We’re gathering over the course of years,” Ullah said.
After one of his assigned trips, Diaz drops me off in front of the Marriott hotel in downtown Manhattan, where he picks me up. We look curiously at the people walking by the car. This happened to him constantly, he said. When he stops at a red light, or goes to lunch, he asks how the air quality is. “I feel that those who ask me, show something amazing and say: ‘Hey, finally someone is doing something about the air.’