Helping to make each breath better

Chris Mizes (middle, with glasses), and vo­lun­teers for the Port Rich­mond Air pro­ject wore air mon­it­ors on their back­packs (the small sil­ver devices) for a day as they walked around the neigh­bor­hood. PHOTO COUR­TESY OF PORT RICH­MOND AIR

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 portrich­

“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 PortRich­, 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 portrich­

Re­port­er Sam Ne­w­house can be reached at 215-354-3124 or at sne­w­

You can reach at

comments powered by Disqus