Environmental Justice Risks from Hyper-Local Monitoring are Exaggerated

Note:  This post was also published at Watts Up With That

According to Bloomberg Law, Biden’s Hefty Clean Air To-Do List Follows Early Big Promises means that air quality standards have to be revised and must incorporate social justice and climate concerns.  Based on what I have seen this push will rely less on science and more on emotion.

The Bloomberg article states:

“Revising clean air rules is a cornerstone of climate and justice policies, two areas that the Biden administration has set as priorities.  Clean air experts in areas that carry a disproportionate burden of dirty air say that runaway air pollution remains a chronic problem, reflecting neglect of low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, exacerbated by air monitor disparities.”

“Portable air quality monitors used in the South Bronx and Brooklyn caught particulate matter quantities 20 times higher in some areas than levels reported by state-run monitors, according to new data from a neighborhood-level air monitoring study by the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, or NYC-EJA.  The findings highlight insufficient air monitoring for targeted environmental justice communities, and show why one generalized air policy may not be enough to mitigate pollution for hard-hit areas, said Jalisa Gilmore, research analyst for NYC-EJA.  “That’s why we have a little bit more emphasis on hyper local monitoring, and making sure that we actually get the interventions that are most appropriate for the community,” she said.”

The New York City hyper local monitoring program is described in the Community Air Mapping Project for Environmental Justice (CAMP-EJ) findings and recommendations report.  In brief:

“Because New York City has only 13 high-performance ambient air monitoring sites, air pollution exposures are poorly characterized at the neighborhood level. To address this data gap, CAMP-EJ utilized dozens of low-cost, portable air quality monitors to measure hyperlocal air quality and characterize air pollution exposures at more refined spatial and temporal scales than is possible using existing City and State data. The results of our air monitoring campaign shed light on the disproportionate public health burdens imposed on environmental justice communities from industrial pollution, trucking, and transportation infrastructure.”

The analysis found that local facilities and expressways are big polluters, traffic congestion fouls the air twice every day, and that hyperlocal measurements show inhalable particulate matter are twenty times higher than state-run monitors.  I was not surprised by the first two findings but the claim that hyperlocal measurements were much higher than state-run monitors surprised me.

I have experience running air quality monitoring networks with particulate matter monitors.  I found that measuring particulates was always difficult to do correctly and more so with smaller aerodynamic particles like the inhalable or 2.5 micron particles.  In the project, “CAMP-EJ participants used the AirBeam2, a low-cost, palm-sized air quality instrument that measures PM2.5, and AirCasting, an open-source environmental data visualization platform that consists of an Android app and online mapping System”.

The going price for an AirBeam 2 is around $250 and the state-run monitors systems use instruments that go for $25,000.  The state-run system has a detailed quality assurance plan and includes quality control tests which I doubt were included in the community monitoring program so my first thought is just how accurate are these personal monitors?  According to the report: “The AirBeam2’s PM2.5 measurements are “quite accurate” according to a performance evaluation conducted by South Coast Air Quality Management District, which compared the performance of the AirBeam2 to reference monitors.”

However, the South Coast Air Quality Management District evaluation report I found told a different story.  Three sensors were tested against a reference FEM FRIMM PM 2.5 monitoring instrument similar to the one used in the New York State network.  According to the concluding discussion:

“Accuracy: Overall, the three AirBeam sensors showed very low accuracy compared to FEM GRIMM at 20 °C and 40% RH, when varying PM2.5 mass concentration from 10 to 50 μg/m3. The AirBeam sensors significantly overestimated the FEM GRIMM readings. According to the method of calculating accuracy, the % accuracy for the sensors were all negative. When PM2.5mass conc. was over 50 μg/m3, Airbeam sensors reached plateau of 315 μg/m3.”

Don’t get me wrong, I have no doubt that the CAMP-EJ main conclusions, local facilities and expressways are big polluters and traffic congestion fouls the air twice every day, are correct.  However, the monitors used over-estimated inhalable particulate concentrations considerably, particularly at the higher rates they claimed are hurting local communities.  As a result, the numbers that they claim prove the need to act are incorrect.

Author: rogercaiazza

I am a meteorologist (BS and MS degrees), was certified as a consulting meteorologist and have worked in the air quality industry for over 40 years. I author two blogs. Environmental staff in any industry have to be pragmatic balancing risks and benefits and (https://pragmaticenvironmentalistofnewyork.blog/) reflects that outlook. The second blog addresses the New York State Reforming the Energy Vision initiative (https://reformingtheenergyvisioninconvenienttruths.wordpress.com). Any of my comments on the web or posts on my blogs are my opinion only. In no way do they reflect the position of any of my past employers or any company I was associated with.

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