West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project research reveals dangerous pollution hotspots

As the Moving Forward Network members that do air pollution monitoring know from on-the-ground experience, EPA regulatory air monitors may show an area to have low levels of particulate matter from diesel exhaust and other air pollution when in fact, nearby hot spots can have high and dangerous levls of air pollution.

For example, while the city’s only EPA regulatory monitor showed air was relatively clean, monitoring by the Diesel Health Project around the BNSF Argentine Rail Yard in Kansas City, Kansas revealed dangerous levels of elemental carbon (an indicator of Diesel Exhaust pollution) in nearby resident’s yards, very likely from a nearby locomotive maintenance yard at which as many as 50 locomotives at a time, many running, await load testing.

Currently, measuring air pollution in overburdened neighborhoods at a high enough level of granularity to comprehensively identify hot spots is very difficult and expensive, and beyond the capabilities of most environmental justice and other community organizations.  

However, research published this week shows how this can be done – and that the results are of great value.  A study carried out by MFN member West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project (WOEIP), the Environmental Defense Fund, Aclima, and the University of Texas at Austin using data collected by Google Street View cars produced findings that were concerning and surprising.

Most significantly, the data shows pollution variations within single blocks in Oakland of as high as 5X, and revealed hotspots that were often very persistent and stable.  

The wide range of pollution levels and the persistence of hotspots tells us something else – in many cases workers and residents are being exposed to much higher levels of pollution and hence higher health risks than they or anyone else knows. We need to build on this research to develop the capability of community-based groups to conduct this level of monitoring in overburdened neighborhoods throughout the U.S.  There are children growing up in these neighborhoods who will sooner or later suffer from underdeveloped lungs, asthma, heart disease, cancer, and other health problems.  The sooner we identify and clean up these hot spots, the more people we can save from air pollution’s health effects, misery, and in some cases, premature death.  

To learn more, view the excellent video with commentary by WOEIP founders Margaret Gordon and Brian Beveridge or read the news articles linked below.  For a deeper dive, click the last link to read the entire journal article.

Google collects air pollution data using Street View cars and offers it to scientists, VentureBeat

Google shares Street View pollution maps, Left Lane News

Tracking Air Quality Block By Block, California Healthline

High-Resolution Air Pollution Mapping with Google Street View Cars: Exploiting Big Data, (complete study) Environmental Science and Technology