Air Quality and Environmental Justice

Air Quality and Environmental Justice
Photo by Jacek Dylag on Unsplash

Everyone deserves access to a safe living environment and adequate resources to help address environmental concerns that arise—and that includes access to clean air. Air pollution is a huge health concern globally, and it disproportionately impacts our often already disadvantaged populations. Using tools including air quality (AQ) monitoring, scientists, community members, and policymakers are working to inform advancements in environmental justice.

The imbalanced impacts of air pollution

While air pollution is pervasive, its effects are not evenly spread: AQ can vary from region to region, even neighborhood to neighborhood, and the communities most exposed to pollution are often already underserved. Industrial air pollution sources like factories are frequently located in close proximity to predominantly lower-income and marginalized communities, which are historically met with a lack of resources and access to decision-makers.

Researchers continue to cultivate their understanding of air pollution sources and other existing factors that may drive disparities. Their ongoing work is crucial, especially considering the negative effects of air pollution on human health.

Air pollution, specifically fine particulate matter (PM2.5 ), is associated with a host of adverse health outcomes including respiratory and cardiovascular disease. According to the 2022 AQLI report, PM2.5 exposure reduces the global average life expectancy by 2.2 years.

Efforts to alleviate inadequate access to clean air fall under the field of environmental justice (EJ). The U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines EJ as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” It aims to provide equal protection from environmental and health hazards as well as equal access to federal agency actions surrounding environmental laws.

Backed by scientific, community, and policy expertise, EJ projects are designed with pathways for meaningful involvement, in which community members, especially those most directly impacted, are welcome to participate in and influence strategic processes.

Air quality monitoring for environmental justice

An environmental justice approach for air quality starts with getting a better understanding of what people are breathing by monitoring the air they breathe.

“We know that communities that are economically disadvantaged more frequently have poorer air quality than more privileged communities,” says Peter DeCarlo, an Associate Professor of Environmental Health and Engineering at Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering. “And so we can use measurements to not only understand that, but hopefully identify ways to make it better and to reduce that inequality.”

High-quality local and real-time AQ data is crucial to developing informed strategies for reducing pollution and protecting community health. That information can be even more valuable across applications when shared openly in aggregate.

“With advancements in technology over the past decade, there is now a real opportunity to use speciated data from low-cost air quality monitoring networks in a manner that empowers decision-makers in traditionally underserved communities to make science-based decisions that improve local air quality,” says Dr. Sidhant Pai, co-founder of Indian non-profit Social Seva, which leverages a variety of air quality measurement and modeling techniques to facilitate an improved understanding of urban air pollution in India.

The value in making an abundance of localized air quality data open and accessible is severalfold. For local citizens, it’s a touchpoint to engage in public health, start conversations on best practices for community readiness, and more broadly support EJ projects. Capabilities for scientific studies range from determining links between specific pollutants and diseases to identifying and comparing sources that contribute to different hotspots. Both findings from the expanding field of study and increased public engagement can contribute to moving forward efforts for clean air.

Funding environmental justice projects

Along with the growing demand for AQ monitoring infrastructure, federal support is expanding to advance EJ in underinvested communities. This year, the EPA announced its largest EJ funding opportunity to date: $100 million in grants across two programs, the Environmental Justice Collaborative Problem-Solving (EJCPS) Cooperative Agreement Program and the Environmental Justice Government-to-Government (EJG2G) Program.

The grant programs, which support President Biden’s Justice40 Initiative, intend to advance EJ through community-based solutions, including a focus on those that monitor and prevent pollution.

“Every American deserves access to clean air and water—no matter their zip code, the color of their skin or the size of their paycheck,” Senator Tammy Duckworth says in a press release. “I’m proud to announce today’s grant funding, which will help deliver results for environmental justice communities that have been ignored for too long.”

Are you ready to advance your environmental justice project with actionable air quality data? Reach out to our team to learn how we can help you design and implement your air monitoring network and help you achieve your environmental justice goals.