Fighting air pollution, a block at a time

2018 annual report

Building on our work monitoring air quality using sensors mounted on Google Street View cars, EDF helped install sensors on vehicles in Houston’s municipal fleet.
  • 133.9 millionAmericans live with unhealthy air.

For decades, cities tracking air pollution have relied on a handful of monitors on towers or rooftops.

But these can’t pinpoint the areas, often in low-income communities, where people are exposed to more pollution.

Now, cities and states are starting to take advantage of new technology to identify pollution hot spots and develop policies that will reduce pollution at the neighborhood level.

For example, California passed a law requiring air pollution reduction plans for some of the state’s most contaminated neighborhoods, where houses and schools sit between oil refineries, industrial facilities and truck routes.

Gathering local information for local action

EDF is working with academic, industry and community partners and government officials to collect detailed air pollution data in such neighborhoods, providing pollution insights literally block by block.

Working with Google Earth Outreach and others, EDF has deployed Google Street View cars outfitted with fast-response air pollution sensors to develop maps of local air pollution in the San Francisco Bay area, Houston and London.

This exciting project will deliver an approach that can be replicated across the world.

Sadiq Khan, mayor of London

In Oakland, California, we partnered with health care provider Kaiser Permanente, which combined electronic health records with the pollution data we obtained with Aclima sensors to determine the effect of air pollution on people in the community.

The analysis, published in the journal Environmental Health, found that streets with more pollution correlated with increased heart disease among the elderly.

Even small increases in smog pollutants were associated with a 16 percent increased risk of heart disease. The same was true of black carbon, a type of soot coming largely from trucks.

“Local action requires local information,” says EDF health scientist Dr. Ananya Roy, a co-author of the study. “EDF is making local pollution not only visible but actionable.”

Now EDF is working to encourage the use of block-by-block air quality mapping in communities globally. Our newest project, in London, will take readings in tens of thousands of locations citywide to inform policies to reduce air pollution.

C40 Cities, a partner in the initiative, will share the results with its 96 member cities, with the aim of improving air quality for hundreds of millions of people in cities around the world.

Houston, we have a solution

Fourth Wave pioneer spotlight
Dr. Loren Raun and EDF's Aileen Nowlan

EDF's Aileen Nowlan and Dr. Loren Raun

Houston is Dr. Loren Raun’s city – and her laboratory. For 20 years, she has researched the health effects of air pollution in Houston, which once vied with Los Angeles for dirtiest air.

She has studied air quality and cardiac arrest, estimated the cost of asthma attacks triggered by pollution and identified high-risk asthma days.

Soon, Dr. Raun, the chief environmental science officer for the Houston Health Department, will be getting data she could only have dreamed of a few years ago.

Building on our work monitoring air quality using sensors mounted on Google Street View cars, EDF helped install sensors on vehicles in Houston’s municipal fleet.

Our research with the vehicle technology company Geotab shows that just 10 to 20 carefully selected municipal vehicles could map air quality for 70 percent of a city while following their normal routes.

“Public fleets could become the eyes and noses of their cities,” says EDF’s Aileen Nowlan. Their data could jump-start clean air measures such as bike infrastructure, congestion relief and freight electrification.

Dr. Raun can’t wait to start working with the new data. “Improving our ability to measure air pollution improves our ability to manage it,” she says.