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Collaborating with Chicago Communities to Develop Resident-Led Air Pollution Monitoring

05.17.17 | Announcements
An installed stationary monitor that is collecting ambient air quality data for the Shared Air Shared Action research project.

An installed stationary monitor that is collecting ambient air quality data for the Shared Air Shared Action research project.

Chicago is a city that was built on factories, steel mills, refineries, and transportation. That history led to progress at the expense of the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the ground on which we live. While coal power plants no longer operate in the city and much of the large, polluting factories have left, health concerns remain for many Chicagoans, especially those who live in communities with a disproportionate amount of pollution.

Delta Institute is working with community-based organizations to develop air monitoring programs that use a system of low-cost air monitors to collect data on the pollutants they’re most concerned about – those that come from places like metal recyclers, pet coke storage facilities, and diesel trucks. This quantification is critical because data on ambient air pollution is often unavailable, and a lack of data significantly limits a community’s ability to advocate for cleaner air.

Sammy Corona, organizer with SETF, installs a stationary air monitor with other members of the the Shared Air Shared Action team.

Sammy Corona, organizer with SETF, installs a stationary air monitor with other members of the the Shared Air Shared Action team.

Delta’s work on this issue has formed into a U.S. EPA-funded research project called Shared Air Shared Action: Community Empowerment Through Low-Cost Air Pollution Monitoring. We’re working in partnership with UIC’s School of Public Health, the Respiratory Health Association, Kansas State University, the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, Southeast Environmental Task Force, People for Community Recovery, and Alliance for a Greener South Loop.

The team is testing a system of mobile and stationary low-cost air monitors that residents in Chicago’s Little Village, South Loop, the Riverdale Community Area, and the Southeast Side neighborhoods will use to collect their own data about the pollutants in the air they breathe.

Sammy Corona, organizer with SETF, and Peggy Salazar, Director of SETF, hold up one of the stationary monitors that will be used in the Shared Air Shared Action research project.

Sammy Corona, organizer with SETF, and Peggy Salazar, Director of SETF, hold up one of the stationary monitors that will be used in the Shared Air Shared Action research project.

Piles of petroleum coke, a remnant of oil refining also known as petcoke, have contributed significant particle pollution to the Southeast Side for years. Petcoke dust contains PM10, particles that are smaller than 10 microns in diameter and can enter the lungs and cause serious health issues, and PM2.5, particles that are smaller than 2.5 microns and can enter the lungs and bloodstream.

The Southeast Environment Task Force (SETF) helped prioritize where residents would monitor and what they would be monitoring for. A key component of Shared Air Shared Action is community science, or data collection by members of the community who collaborate with research scientists.

Each community sets the monitoring priorities, and it’s the community members who will use the data when the research project is complete.

Samuel Corona, a community organizer for SETF, highlights the gravity of the situation:

“Petcoke, like all other bulk handling materials, has been assaulting the quality of life for residents of the Southeast Side. We share a footprint with our industrial neighbors. The residents of this community have become imprisoned in their homes due to the fear of what’s in our ambient air.”

Shared Air Shared Action aims to empower residents by giving them the ability to scientifically gather relevant data themselves. Each of the four communities involved in Shared Air Shared Action will conduct two rounds of air monitoring, in the summer and winter. Each community group will share their data with their communities at engagement events and meetings.

At the end of the research project, the team will compile training materials, methodology, and lessons learned into a guidebook that other communities across the country can use to develop their own resident-led, low-cost air monitoring programs. Asked what his hopes are for Shared Air Shared Action, Samuel responds:

“To create awareness for my community and an engagement toolbox for other communities facing environmental injustice.”