CHARLOTTE, N. C. – A Mecklenburg County community air-pollution monitoring project is highlighting how housing discrimination affects the health of predominantly African-American residents.
For the past three years, people living in Charlotte’s West End have been using sensors that measure air-pollution in real time. As part of the AirKeepers program, they’ve discovered spikes in air pollution after such events as rush-hour traffic, construction and street paving.
Resident Ronald Ross says historically, African-American neighborhoods in Charlotte were concentrated on the west side of town, close to railroad lines and factories. Now, these neighborhoods are wedged between major highways and industrial zoning.
“Our communities are experiencing lots of interactions with COPD, asthma, heart disease and so forth, and a lot of that is caused through the air that we’re breathing,” says Ross, who is president of the Northwood Estates Community Organization.
Living in areas with poor air quality has been linked to chronic health conditions – from asthma and allergies to mental-health issues – and among pregnant women, it has been associated with birth defects, premature births and miscarriages.
West End residents now are petitioning for the city to reduce vehicle emissions in the area, tighten air-quality permitting and zoning for businesses, and plant more trees.
Calvin Cupini, program manager at Clean Air Carolina – the nonprofit organization spearheading the citizen science project – says the problem is statewide.
According to Cupini, the state doesn’t have enough stationary air-pollution monitors to measure air quality in every neighborhood or rural area. He points to the portable sensors, which are connected to a smartphone app, as a way for communities to collect data that can help residents make informed decisions.
“The traditional paradigms are waning away, and that would be the existing structures of things like the EPA,” Cupini explains. “And its opportunities to actually intervene in these cases is diminishing, either for political reasons or just resources.”
Clean Air Carolina is now working with the Environmental Protection Agency to put similar, low-cost air-pollution sensors in the hands of other communities, with the goal of having at least one air monitor in every North Carolina county by year’s end.