The Port Richmond AIR project is recruiting resident volunteers to help monitor air quality in a neighborhood that unfortunately has more than its fair share of diesel emissions, as I-95 cuts through the neighborhood.
Ever found that taking a deep breath in Port Richmond isn’t quite as refreshing as you would like?
If so, it is likely due to the neighborhood’s proximity to I-95, which exposes locals to heavy diesel truck and car emissions all day.
To find out how intense that exposure is, Pennsylvania’s Clean Air Council recently started a community research project in Port Richmond, with the help of a dozen neighborhood volunteers who are monitoring the air quality of their community.
“We’re working in Port Richmond because most emissions come from diesel trucks,” said Port Richmond AIR project coordinator Chris Mizes, 25. “We figured Port Richmond would be a hot spot for that because there is the highway and the port right there.”
Mizes called the current air monitoring experiments a “citizen science project.” All of their results are being documented at portrichmondair.org.
“We realized we wanted way more of a community voice in advocating for air quality in the neighborhood,” Mizes said about why locals are being asked to not just participate, but help guide the project.
“We kept hearing from residents about all that the issues that were going around,” said John Lee, a community health coordinator at Clean Air Council who has a master’s degree in public health. “First it was because of truck traffic … it evolved into all the things the community are interested in, what fires them up. Which is truck traffic mostly, but also diesel particulates in general and how that impacts their health and breathing.”
Mizes said his team of volunteers has multiple proposals for how to improve Port Richmond’s air quality, such as lobbying for new, strictly enforced truck routes in the neighborhood.
They’ve also suggested creating a tour for elected officials of air-polluting facilities in Port Richmond.
After all, although Port Richmond is one of the less congested parts of Philadelphia, it still gets pretty gritty, with high amounts of “particulate matter” and “black carbon” from the nearby interstate swirling through the air.
“Philadelphia as a whole is kind of dirtier than most cities in the U.S. It’s in the top 10 for that kind of stuff,” Mizes said.
According to the American Lung Association’s 2012 State of the Air 2012 report, Philadelphia has the 10th highest rate of annual particle pollution in the United States.
“It’s nothing to be fearful or concerned about. It’s not an immediate health risk,” Mizes explained. “But over the course of your life, with constant exposure, it could increase, for example, your risk of asthma, or other problems.”
The health risks from air pollution were documented in the famous Harvard “Six Cities” study, which found a correlation between air pollution levels and mortality rates in six U.S. cities.
According to PortRichmondAir.org, in 2010 in Port Richmond, asthma was present in 26 percent of children and 23 percent of adults. While research has not established a direct link between air pollution and asthma rates, higher rates of asthma and respiratory infections are generally associated with high diesel traffic.
The Philadelphia Department of Public Health’s Air Management Services has supported Clean Air Council and Port Richmond Air in their research by providing laboratory support and technical assistance.
“Air Management Services is concerned about all residential communities in Philadelphia and many of our efforts have been focused on communities close to major pollution sources, such as the I-95 corridor,” said Jeff Moran, health department spokesman. “We are currently in the process of installing a new near-road monitor at Torresdale Regional Rail station near I-95 that will measure carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter.”
But in the meantime, it’s an issue local volunteers cared enough about to wear air monitors for an entire day, as they did during the first air-monitoring deployment in December 2011.
Volunteers wore the air-monitors on their backpacks as they went about their business over the course of a typical day in the neighborhood.
“It just gives you an idea of one person’s exposure over an eight hour period,” Mizes explained. “They kept journals of where they went throughout the day, and took photos of where they were. That was our first attempt at doing this.”
Mizes and his researchers use extremely sensitive air monitors with filters that can trap tiny particles of dirt and pollution. They have found, indeed, that air is dirtier the closer one is to I-95, and cleaner further away from it.
“We’re measuring particulate matter,” Mizes explained. “It’s not a gas, it’s just like little itty bitty particles that are produced when you burn fossil fuels, or that come off tires when you’re driving down the street. You can breathe them in. They’re bad for your health. The smaller they are, the worse for your health. They can get into your bloodstream.”
As Lee put it, “Fine particles, 2.5 micrograms or lower, which are called ultrafine or fine particulates, are a big concern, because they would go into the deep tissue of the lungs or the bloodstream, which is especially damaging, particularly to children, because their breathing rates are way higher than those of adults.”
In June, the researchers climbed 12-foot ladders to place air monitors on top of houses, in parks and in various other places around Port Richmond, including next to a SEPTA station.
The filters used for that experiment were even more advanced – sensitive enough to produce an accurate record of the minute-by-minute levels of particulate matter in the air.
They found that pollution is higher in the morning – not just because of traffic, but because cooler morning air is more compressed, pushing dirt in the air closer to the ground, where citizens are breathing. That was a discovery that Mizes said was particularly exciting, as it was unexpected.
“It’s interesting for people to know that the air quality is worse in the morning,” he said.
Mizes, originally from St. Louis, Mo., and now a resident of West Philadelphia, recently received his master’s degree in geography and urban studies from Temple University. A lifelong environmental advocate, Mizes also is interested in environmental justice – the politics of why one neighborhood is more exposed to pollution than another.
In the future, as long as there’s funding and interest from the community, Mizes is looking for more projects that the Port Richmond Air team can take on, in addition to another planned deployment of air monitors in the winter.
“We don’t have any plans to stop working in Port Richmond,” Mizes said. “Community involvement plus funding means there is work to do.”
To volunteer or obtain more information, visit portrichmondair.org.
Reporter Sam Newhouse can be reached at 215-354-3124 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.