“Addressing air pollution, which is the second highest risk factor for noncommunicable diseases, is key to protecting public health,” warns the World Health Organization (WHO). “Most sources of outdoor air pollution are well beyond the control of individuals and this demands concerted action by local, national and regional level policy-makers working in sectors like energy, transport, waste management, urban planning and agriculture.”  WHO adds that “99% of people worldwide are exposed to harmful levels of fine particulates.”   The WHO graphic above is an interactive map allowing you to compare average exposures to specific air pollutants by hovering over different countries.

Documenting the levels and sources of air pollution fits the Rotary Four-Way Tests of telling the truth and striving to make situations fair and beneficial to all concerned. Drawing on the insights of three Rotarians with decades of experience, this article offers an overview of some of the major sources of air pollution, how Rotarians can promote solutions, and links to websites describing air pollution’s health impacts and how to measure and analyze air quality.

Environmental experts Rob Altenburg and Chip Carson, MD, PhD (both Rotarians) caution that outdoor air pollution is determined by a host of factors, including regional and continental weather patterns, business decisions, and public policy.  “You’ll see a whole bunch of stuff out there on individual actions people can take,” says Altenburg.  “Those aren’t a bad idea, but the big three polluters tend to be electric generation, highway vehicles, and industrial emissions.  We aren’t going to fix the air pollution issues unless we address them.”

While the WHO reports that 6,700 cities in 117 countries are monitoring air quality, there are a lot of gaps. Rotarians can use citizen science to make dangers visible.  That requires a well-designed monitoring plan, reliable equipment, sound data analysis, and collaboration with other stakeholders. Dr. Carson recommends that you explore the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Sensor Toolbox, available in both English and Spanish.  More on what it offers below.

A member of RC Mechanicsburg North, in Pennsylvania, USA, environmental lawyer Rob Altenburg is Senior Director for Energy and Climate at PennFuture, an environmental advocacy organization.  He modeled emissions from vehicles, factories, and off road equipment for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection for many years before going into law. In parts of the world where fossil-fuel fired electric plants are top generators of carbon emissions and toxic particulates, “energy efficiency is far and away the best action,” he says. “It pays for itself, reduces the load on the electric grid, and reduces prices for everyone.” Rotarians can promote efficiency in the businesses they manage or influence, as well as advocating for it to be included in city planning and building codes.

“The case for this approach is the money saved by preventing lost work and higher health care costs,” Altenburg explains. “If you have an ozone spike in your city, you’ll probably see a spike in hospital emissions two or three days later.” Rotarians can help their communities notice these impacts.  In America, for example, “we don’t see those higher health care costs on our electric bill, but it’s in our health care premiums,” he points out.  Also, if Rotarians start monitoring air quality, they can help publicize days of dangerous pollution levels so vulnerable people including schoolchildren and people with chronic disease can limit their exposure.

ESRAG Past Chair Rick Randolph, MD, who has years of public health experience in the developing world and serves on the Rotary Cadre of Technical Advisers on Disease Treatment and Prevention, shared a compelling Rotary project from the Philippines: “The Rotary Club of Makati in Manila established several air quality monitors which provide real time air quality data,” he says. “The readings are color-coded for hazard level and disseminated via a cell phone app.”

The Club’s project was the first-ever real time monitoring of air-borne PM10 and PM2.5 particulates in the country. [Photo: one of the RC Makati sensors in Manila]  In addition to alerting the public to dangerous conditions so vulnerable people can protect themselves, the Club wants to illuminate the problem to mobilize businesses, NGO’s and environmental advocates to reduce pollution, and to urge the government to significantly improve the lax enforcement of the Philippine Clean Air Act.

Dr. Chip Carson, a member of Cincinnati Rotary (Ohio, USA), served as a professor of environmental and occupational medicine at the University of Texas and has consulted on environmental hazards with the WHO, NGOs, and community groups around the world. He cites a number of sources of dangerous emissions including diesel exhaust, oilfield drilling, and scrap metal and battery recycling, which are common cottage industries in developing countries.  “These are often family-run businesses whose incomes are meager, and whose owners don’t have access to health and safety advice,” he says.  These small operations expose workers and neighborhoods to airborne lead and other heavy metals. Artisanal mining is another point source. An example is the efforts of people in Nigeria to refine usable fuel from toxic puddles at abandoned oil wells.

Dr. Carson worked with an NGO in Kazakhstan to use monitoring to overcome an environmental injustice to an indigenous community.  Together they documented hydrogen sulfide exposure from an oilfield.  “When you drill into an oil seam which contains hydrogen sulfide, it escapes as a gas cloud that rolls over the ground,” he explains. “This is an acute toxin and rapid anesthetic which causes people to lose consciousness, fall to the ground, and sometimes even perish.  Head injuries are frequent from these falls.  The NGO used the data to advocate for recognition of the problem and win funds to relocate the community.”

Dr. Carson recommends the US EPA’s online toolkit which “discusses available monitoring devices and their pros and cons,” he says. “Almost all sensors can be downloaded to a smart phone or laptop.” Collecting data is just the first step.  Teams need a database to store the data and run analyses. “The EPA toolbox gives you access to some apps and sharable designed databases. To protect yourself from bots or malware, you should check online comments by user communities,” he says.

The EPA site includes an Enhanced Air Sensor Guidebook and a quality assurance handbook and toolkit for participatory science, plus lesson plans and an 18-minute video training series called “Make Your Data Count.”  Dr. Randolph suggests you read this US Environmental Protection Agency study of the implementation of air quality monitoring by community groups using low-cost monitoring equipment.

Since a number of sensors are affordable, Clubs or Districts could purchase appropriate ones for citizen science campaigns. Most collect a variety of data including temperature and humidity, which are also factors in how dangerous the pollution is on any given day. Altenburg and Carson recommend that you find out if local public health or research institutions are already collecting air quality data. Rotary air quality projects should coordinate with any more rigorous monitoring efforts, making smart decisions on where and what citizens can monitor as useful warning signs of risk.  This will probably include fine particulates and ozone, “which both relate to lung and cardiovascular disease,” Dr. Carson explains. “Some sensors are modular, so you can add channels for additional pollutants.”

A fascinating page on the EPA site reports on the use of the Kolibri, a drone system which allows you to remotely and safely document point source emissions, such as wildfires and industrial plumes.

Wouldn’t it be cool to be a Club with a Kolibri?