Nav: Home

Let's clear the air

May 29, 2019

PITTSBURGH (May 29, 2019) -- For the past 40 years, research has proven that people of color, low-income communities and ethnic minorities suffer the effects of environmental contamination more than other communities. The Flint, Mich., water crisis and the Dakota Pipeline protests serve as national examples of environmental injustices, but similar issues affect communities across the country.

New research from the University of Pittsburgh's Swanson School of Engineering Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation, in partnership with the Kingsley Association and funded by the Heinz Endowments examined the impact that bottom-up, community-level initiatives have in addressing environmental justice issues. They found that the best way to address a community's environmental injustices is to meet them where they are, integrating into the community and building trust over a long-term partnership.

Pittsburgh has long struggled with air quality since its early industrial days, and the effects of environmental pollution on health are well-known. Residents in the Greater Pittsburgh region are at twice the cancer risk of surrounding counties, and disadvantaged communities see the worst of it. The East End of Pittsburgh is among the city's most underserved boroughs, struggling with crumbling infrastructure, community disinvestment, and high traffic density. These factors all contribute to the poor air quality affecting citizens' health and wellness, which is what their program, the Environmental Justice Community Action Matrix (EJCAM), is designed to address.

"When your house is in need of repairs, it can't effectively keep the outdoor air out. Since Americans spend nearly 90 percent of their time indoors, the concentration of pollution inside the house could be a significant contributor to poor health," says Melissa Bilec, PhD, the Roberta A. Luxbacher Faculty Fellow and associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. "I visited one community member's home and noticed that she was using an oxygen tank, and it struck me just how much these environmental issues are impacting people's health inside their own homes."

Dr. Bilec and her team, with PhD student, Harold Rickenbacker as a lead, have partnered with the Kingsley Association, a community organization in Larimer, since 2007 on environmental justice initiatives. EJCAM, their most recent collaboration, went through four stages, using the Theory of Change paradigm: outreach, involvement, participatory research and consultation. It culminated in in-house air quality testing that Dr. Bilec says wouldn't have been possible without the trust that their partnership built, especially Harold's commitment and time spent in working with the community.

EJCAM created Community Action Teams (CATs), which trained community members to become leaders who would train others and advocate for environmental issues; the Urban Transition Cities Movement (UTCM) brought together unlikely stakeholders community members, non-profit leaders, small businesses, universities, governmental agencies, youth and public officials. Because of these initiatives, community members have become more involved and aware of environmental issues, knowledgeable about green materials, infrastructure and land use practices. They're active in the management of forthcoming landscape features in housing developments and pollution control schemes.

The most important thing Dr. Bilec learned through this process was that in order to be effective, the first step must be building trust. And the way to build trust is to be visible in the community over time.

Harold Rickenbacker, a PhD candidate working with Dr. Bilec on the initiative and lead author of the paper, dedicated himself to integrating with the community to truly understand its needs and the best way to fill them. He attended community meetings, church gatherings and other events. A mobile air quality monitoring bicycle campaign took researchers and community members to the streets, riding bikes mounted with air particulate counters that give a real-time map of air quality in the area. More than that, it gave the researchers a way to be visible and connect with the community, who would often stop them to ask what they were doing.

"We found the most important thing we could do was to be present, to listen to the citizens and figure out how our research can help them," says Mr. Rickenbacker. "Community-based initiatives are effective, but they have to be a sustained partnership, not a one-off event."
-end-
The team is currently performing indoor air quality assessments with the community members, counseling them on measures they can take to improve it and the supplies they'll need to do so. They hope that their program model will be replicable in other communities in the Pittsburgh area and beyond.

The project recently won the Senior Vice Chancellor for Engagement's Partnerships of Distinction Award, and Mr. Rickenbacker won the Carnegie Science Award in the College/University Student category this year for his work on EJCAM.

The paper, "Creating Environmental Consciousness in Underserved Communities: Implementation and Outcomes of Community-Based Environmental Justice and Air Pollution Research," was published in Sustainable Cities and Society (DOI10.1016/j.scs.2019.101473) and was coauthored by Dr. Bilec and Fred Brown of the Forbes Fund.

University of Pittsburgh

Related Air Quality Articles:

A large part of the school buildings in Andalusia does not have adequate air quality
A high percentage of schools buildings in Andalusia does not have the necessary mechanical ventilation equipment or filtration systems in place, so air has to be renewed by means of infiltrations or opening the windows.
Study: Actually, potted plants don't improve indoor air quality
Plants can help spruce up a home or office space, but claims about their ability to improve the air quality are vastly overstated, according to research out of Drexel University.
House developers could be the secret weapon to improving air quality
House developers and urban planners could be the unlikely heroes in the battle against the 'new tobacco' -- air pollution -- say researchers from the University of Surrey.
Particles emitted by consumer 3D printers could hurt indoor air quality
The particles emitted from 3D printers can negatively impact indoor air quality and have the potential to harm respiratory health, according to a study from researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology and UL Chemical Safety.
Treat citizens as partners, not participants, to improve air quality research
Encouraging citizens to take part in almost every step of scientific air quality research improves their understanding of how air pollution affects their health, finds a new study from the University of Surrey.
Monitoring air quality after Fourth of July fireworks
The U.S. recently celebrated the Fourth of July with dazzling fireworks displays in many cities.
India could meet air quality standards by cutting household fuel use
India could make a major dent in air pollution by curbing emissions from dirty household fuels such as wood, dung, coal and kerosene, shows a new analysis led by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley and the India Institute of Technology.
Human encroachment alters air quality over Amazon rainforest
Plumes of air pollution generated from a rapidly expanding city within the Amazon rainforest are wafting hundreds of miles and degrading air quality in the pristine rainforest, according to a team of scientists.
Electric vehicle adoption improves air quality and climate outlook
A Northwestern University study quantified the differences in air pollution generated from battery-powered electric vehicles versus internal combustion engines.
Air quality to remain a problem in India despite pollution control policies
According to an independent study released today by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) and the Council on Energy, Environment, and Water (CEEW), more than 674 million Indian citizens are likely to breathe air with high concentrations of PM2.5 in 2030, even if India were to comply with its existing pollution control policies and regulations.
More Air Quality News and Air Quality Current Events

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2019.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

In & Out Of Love
We think of love as a mysterious, unknowable force. Something that happens to us. But what if we could control it? This hour, TED speakers on whether we can decide to fall in — and out of — love. Guests include writer Mandy Len Catron, biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, musician Dessa, One Love CEO Katie Hood, and psychologist Guy Winch.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#543 Give a Nerd a Gift
Yup, you guessed it... it's Science for the People's annual holiday episode that helps you figure out what sciency books and gifts to get that special nerd on your list. Or maybe you're looking to build up your reading list for the holiday break and a geeky Christmas sweater to wear to an upcoming party. Returning are pop-science power-readers John Dupuis and Joanne Manaster to dish on the best science books they read this past year. And Rachelle Saunders and Bethany Brookshire squee in delight over some truly delightful science-themed non-book objects for those whose bookshelves are already full. Since...
Now Playing: Radiolab

An Announcement from Radiolab