At first glance, Ramses Diaz’s car seems like any other driving through New York City. Then I spot the phrase, “I measure air quality,” on the left door. Inside, a tablet attached to the dashboard displays a map of New York City, and two big boxes in the trunk beam huge quantities of data uploaded to the cloud to be analyzed by the scientists in California and New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). I step inside with Diaz and off we go to track air quality in Brooklyn.
In July, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced the launch of a statewide air quality and greenhouse gas mobile monitoring initiative. The goal is to measure pollution levels in 10 regions: Niagara Falls, the state’s Capital Region, the Bronx, Manhattan, Rochester, Syracuse, Mount Vernon, Brooklyn, Queens and Hempstead.
The project is one of the actions the state is taking to achieve the goals of New York’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which aims to cut emissions by 40 percent by 2030, said Adriana Espinoza, deputy commissioner for equity and justice at the DEC.
Over the course of a year, the California-based tech company Aclima will be collecting air quality data from a fleet of 21 modified sensor-equipped vehicles, each named after famous musicians. These cars will 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 sensor-equipped vehicle samples the air to detect the presence and concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5), nitrogen dioxide, ozone, carbon monoxide, methane, carbon dioxide, black carbon and benzene, among other pollutants. Then, the attached wireless network sends the data to the West Coast to be analyzed.
By the end of the year, the cars will have completed the designated routes at least 20 times. This is to account for changes in weather, congestion, industrial traffic and other atmospheric conditions that impact the quality of the air.
Diaz, 49, a photographer from Venezuela, became a driver because he needed to work. Yet, he said he feels a sense of purpose in his job. 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 quality of the air 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 declined 43, 39 and 56 percent, respectively. In March, the Environmental Protection Agency reported that the emissions reductions have led to dramatic improvements in the quality of the air not just in New York, but across the United States.
“These air quality improvements have enabled many areas of the country to meet national air quality standards set to protect public health and the environment,” the agency said on its website.
But this is not true for every community.
“The pollution we’re struggling with now is more like hotspots,” said Eric Schaffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit based in Washington D.C. He explained that while the quality of the air is getting better overall, there are some communities and neighborhoods where the levels of pollution are more intense.
As Diaz drives across the Brooklyn Bridge, the day begins to clear. The blue sky looks clean—but the reality 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. “It wasn’t until later that I realized that it was because of exposure to air pollution.”
Now, Ullah works as a social and environmental justice advocate for the community organization South Bronx Unite. “Heart disease, obesity, diabetes, dementia. All of these diseases are connected to exposure to air pollution.”
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A recent study found that eliminating PM 2.5—tiny particulates about one-thirtieth the diameter of a human hair, released by burning fossil fuels and from construction dust and wildfires —would prevent more than 50,000 annual premature deaths in the country. It would also prevent almost 3,000 non-fatal heart attacks, 15,000 asthma-related emergency room visits and 3.68 million days of work lost due to illness.
“The community’s quality of life is being severely diminished,” Ullah said, referring to the South Bronx. Yet, for many years, researchers and government agencies have come to do environmental studies without involving residents in the process. The Department of Environmental Conservation decided to change that.
Since the beginning of the tracking project, the DEC made it its mission to work with communities. They teamed up with the Climate Justice Working Group, an organization of representatives from environmental justice communities statewide, and held community stakeholder meetings in each of the 10 areas before launching the monitoring.
At the first meeting, they introduced the initiative and then had a second meeting to get community feedback, said Espinoza. Ullah was there.
South Bronx Unite got interested in the initiative because for years people have known that they are breathing toxic air but they didn’t have the data to prove it.
For decades the country has had the technology to assess air quality, but until about ten years ago scientists began paying attention to the less expensive and smaller scale sensor technology, explained Melissa Lunden, chief scientist at Aclima.
Also, the EPA’s network of monitoring devices has a history of missing the mark, according to EPA data and independent monitoring organizations.
The agency has repeatedly failed to detect toxic releases and daily pollution dangers, and its monitors are unevenly dispersed throughout the country, according to the monitoring agencies. In 2020, about 120 million Americans lived in counties where EPA had no pollution monitors.
On top of that, the concentration levels of pollutants like benzene, present in gasoline, vary across short distances. A fixed air monitor may get low levels in its range of coverage and not sense the high levels happening a thousand yards away.
“You’ll get a statement from the agency that says: ‘Oh, we measured it and we didn’t find any risk,’” Schaffer said.
The goal should be to use the data Aclima gathers to implement longer term monitoring projects, Schaffer emphasized. Always involving the communities’ perspectives about the issues being studied because “the monitoring is not foolproof.”
The data Aclima gathers will help the Department of Environmental Conservation and the communities have a clearer understanding of pollution levels and craft specific solutions.
“We might see data that shows that there are elevated levels of certain pollutants in particular, but that doesn’t necessarily tell us what the source is,” said Jared Snyder, DEC’s deputy commissioner for air resources, climate change, and energy about some previous monitors installed in the city.
It will also give the DEC information to request state resources and incentives to offer the communities, including incentives for electric trucks and construction funds for more green spaces.
Ullah also hopes the data will be open and shared with the communities. For too long, agencies and researchers have come to frontline communities but then never once their work is done, he said. Ullah said community activists want to be able to conduct more analysis for themselves.
South Bronx Unite is also conducting its own studies. The plan is to install fixed monitors at ground level in some of the neighborhood’s pollution hotspots to get all the data that hasn’t been collected before. The group recently applied to get a DEC grant to fund this initiative. “We’re going deeper. We’re going wider. We’re collecting it over a course of years,” Ullah said.
After driving one of his assigned routes, Diaz leaves me in front of the Marriott hotel in downtown Manhattan, where he picked me up. People walking by look at the car with curiosity. This happens to him constantly, he said. When he stops at a red light, or he parks to get lunch, people ask him how the quality of the air is. “I feel the people who ask me show some surprise and say: ‘Hey, so finally somebody is doing something about the air.’”