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Air Quality Likely Varies In Our Neighborhoods, But Dallas Can’t Prove It. Yet.

Low-cost sensors can measure how particulate matter varies in each Dallas neighborhood, gathering data that could impact policy.

Editor’s note: An hour or so after this piece was published, the committee voted unanimously to send the issue to the full City Council. It will likely be taken up in December, to give city staff ample time to prepare. 

Dallas may be the nation’s 16th most polluted city, but pollutants often vary drastically from neighborhood to neighborhood. However, the city doesn’t actually have the technology in place to prove it. This morning, the City Council’s Quality of Life, Arts, and Culture Committee will be briefed on a plan for Dallas to become a founding member of a new network of air quality monitors called the North Texas Clean Air Network. The goal is to lay bare the exact caliber of Dallas’ air in each community, to help influence policy decisions and improve public health.

“It’s OK if you don’t have ozone monitors on every corner because ozone levels are going to be pretty much the same over a wider area,” says Jim Schermbeck, the director of the nonprofit Downwinders At Risk, which has pushed for the city to become part of the network. “But that’s not true of particulate matter (PM) pollution. And that’s what this network would be monitoring first and foremost.”

Particulate matter is just a fancy environmental term for soot. An abundance of PM has been linked to all manner of nasty health issues, from lung cancer to birth defects, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The matter is so miniscule that it is capable of passing into one’s bloodstream. As of now, there is just one PM monitor with publicly available information. It’s near Stemmons Freeway and Mockingbird and supposedly accounts for the whole city.

“One corner of an intersection could be great, but the other side could have real problems and be high in PM,” Schermbeck says. “It’s very micro-orientated. So this is why you need more monitors out on every street corner or every mile.”

Dr. David Lary, an atmospheric scientist and adjunct physics professor at University of Texas at Dallas, has worked extensively on developing the monitors that would be used for the new network. Lary said that the $284,000 network would help researchers find out the types of particles in the air and where they came from. The network would show how these levels vary throughout the day. Current air monitors take measurements every hour or two; this system would test the air with only one to 10 second lulls between each analysis.

With this data, researchers will be able to track health trends. Are high PM levels in a neighborhood associated with life expectancy in that area? How do PM levels correlate with worker productivity? Not only would such public health information be available, but the monitor system would also allow Dallas residents make day-to-day health decisions based on the uninterrupted, public air quality data. If there were a fire, the PM monitors could inform official decisions to ask residents to remain indoors. A soccer team coach could check the neighborhood’s PM levels to decide whether practice should be held inside or outside. A mother could decide whether it was a good time of day to take her child for a jaunt around the block in the stroller.

“Air is the biggest exposure pathway for toxins that we encounter every day. Yet, we know more about the food we ingest than the air we breathe,” Schermbeck says. “Every year, we breathe in lakes and lakes of air. And we need to have a better handle in terms of what that means for public health.”

Cities like Los Angeles and Chicago are already establishing comprehensive PM measurement networks. A recent University of Southern California (USC) study developed a system that “can measure particulate matter levels neighborhood by neighborhood” and discovered which areas, like Chinatown, are most affected by PM pollution. Chicago this year initiated a new project dedicated to positioning more PM monitors around the city, eventually growing its total to 500.

Even Plano is well on its way. Yarcus Lewis, Plano’s Sustainability Projects Supervisor, said that the city has spent the last two years collaborating with researchers to plan for such an air monitoring system.

“[The city of Plano] was invited to participate with the University of Texas Dallas in a National Science Foundation Grant application to study the local air quality,” Lewis said. “That started our involvement with the effort.”

Although the air monitor system wasn’t a finalist for the grant, Lewis said the stakeholders decided to fulfill the dream of a North Texas Clean Air Network anyway. Although the system is still a conceptual idea, Plano plans on being a “founding member” and backers of the system are hoping Dallas will hop on board after Monday’s presentation.

Sandy Greyson, the chair of the committee that will vote whether to send the project for the full City Council for approval, said she imagines the Clean Air Network proposal fitting nicely as an action for a pre existing air quality plan that the Council discussed. However, Greyson said she would need more information. The original proposal of the network didn’t mention any funding details, as far as she knows.

“Everyone likes the idea of an air monitor system,” Greyson said. “I think monitors are a great idea. But the devil is truly in the details and the main thing that needs to be discussed is how to fund the project.”

Griggs said he is in support of the system but also is interested in how budgeting will work. “I think it’s an idea that’s long overdue,” Griggs said. “Dallas needs it and I look forward to not only passing it but passing funding for it.”

Lary said that the total $284,000 proposal is a comparatively low budget pitch because much of it is covered by UTD. The university’s students will develop and calibrate the sensors as part of their educational process. Therefore, Lary said, the network is only requesting the city pay for materials. The total network would ideally include twenty “clusters,” each including eleven units, for a grand total of 220 monitors.

During the proposal on Monday, the committee will most likely hear another one of Schermbeck’s top reasons that the North Texas Clean Air Network is necessary: for the sake of “environmental justice,” public policy, and zoning.

“For the first time, we can begin to map air pollution problems throughout the city of Dallas and decide who has more than their fair share,” Schermbeck says. “And why is that important? If it turns out that West Dallas or Joppa have more than their fair share of air pollution, now we know it’s probably not the best place to put new batch plants in the future.”

Schermbeck is referring to the Dallas City Council’s controversial rejection of a new Joppa concrete plant last March. Supporters of the new plant argued that it would provide jobs and increase industry. Opposition to the motion namely consisted of environmental groups, including Schermbeck’s Downwinders at Risk. They contended that Dallas continually pushed pollution-causing industries to primarily-minority communities (moves that Downwinders labelled as “environmentally racist”) and that Joppa had plenty of soot already.

Things really got interesting when the Downwinders crew dashed down to Joppa shortly before the council voted, bringing a PM monitor with them. According to their findings on the monitor, Joppa’s PM levels were dangerously high and 30 percent to 50 percent greater than the readings of the single official Dallas monitor several miles away. These findings were presented during voting deliberations and the council ended up voting nine to five against the instillation of the new concrete plant.

Schermbeck hopes that the results of the Joppa decision will foreshadow the outcome of this month’s environmental vote.

“Never count your votes before they’re cast,” Schermbeck said. “But in terms of committees to hear this proposal, this is certainly one of the best, not only in terms of expertise but also in terms of background.”

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