Study aims to determine what’s in the air


In this AirCasting map, the red areas, including the produce market, denote the highest levels of particulate matter, and green the lowest.

Students team with researchers to test local environment

A non-profit environmental justice organization is working with high school students in the Hunts Point area to investigate just what people are breathing in the community day to day. Sustainable South Bronx has teamed up with a team of environmental technology experts called AirCasting administered by a non-profit called HabitMap, to collect data that can help identify the source of environmental conditions in the area and then propose solutions.

The group of volunteers and high school students will use AirCasting’s sensors and digital mapping technology to determine variations in air quality around the neighborhood, and then map them online for the public. Specifically the group will be detecting the amount of fine particulate matter – which can cause respiratory illnesses — in the air. Abbreviated as PM2.5, fine particulate matter is produced by “combustion, including vehicle exhaust, and by chemical reactions between gases such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and volatile organic compounds,” according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

At this point in our study, we are still determining results,” said Case Wyse, the program coordinator for AirCasting. “We have been very successful in collecting a wide range of results, but this is really only a snapshot.”

The study started in September and includes volunteers in the community and high school students from Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School in Soundview, who meet once a month on Mondays to collect data. Wyse also meets the students on Mondays during their science classes to discuss the environment and the collected data. The students are already seeing possibilities for future solutions to the environmental problems in the neighborhood.

“I can try to invent a way to create fuels for vehicles that don’t pollute the air,” said Francisco Cabrera, aninth grade student at Fannie Lou Hamer. Cabrera, who is a part of the group participating in the study, hopes to one day become an engineer.

In order to collect the data, the group uses a black Lego-styled device called the AirBeam — an air quality sensor that records the amount of particulate matter measured in micrograms per cubic foot. The information is then transferred via Bluetooth to the AirCasting Android app, which maps and graphs the data.

Based on the information recorded in the past three months, the numbers are higher along the Bruckner Expressway and near the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center.

“The cause near the distribution center is likely idling trucks, a problem that could be fixed,” said Angela Tovar, a community planner at Sustainable South Bronx, adding “There should be stronger enforcement against the law to idle more than three minutes.” Whenever the monitors receive a high reading, members of the group take pictures of the area. Studies so far have shown a diversity of industrial sources influence the overall average, Wyse pointed out, including older trucks.

So far the crowd map has already taken collected data and mapped out the hotspots that the group has recorded in the samplings between October and December. The results are on the organization’s website for now, but in the new year, the group will begin to draw conclusions with the data and issue and present a full report with the students.

“Air quality is at the forefront of our concerns,” said Wyse, “and we really look forward to hearing more about how the students and community members react to these results.”

The story was updated on Jan. 6 to clarify that AirCasting is a platform of technology experts administered by a non-profit called HabitMap, rather than a company. The group measures micrograms per cubic foot to measure its data findings, not cubic meters. In addition, while older trucks have been found to be one cause of air pollution in Hunts Point, there are many other local industrial sources that also appear to contribute to the problem. 

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