Air pollution comes in many forms, from visible smog to invisible microparticles. Some of the tiniest toxins floating in our air can have the most dangerous impacts on public health. The Midwest is full of many sources of air contamination, including power plants, idling motor vehicles, construction sites, airplanes, wood-burning fires, and more. According to the American Lung Association, Chicago has the 16th worst air pollution among American cities due to ozone and particulate matter.
Our team is focused on Particulate Matter 2.5 (PM2.5) a category of tiny air pollutants that are small enough to bypass the body’s natural defenses, enter the blood stream and become lodged in the throat and lungs. They are about 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair. Exposure to PM2.5 can affect everyone, over both short and long periods of time. Children and the elderly, especially those with asthma and other chronic respiratory illnesses, are particularly vulnerable to the negative health effects caused by air pollution.
Our team has been systematically collecting air data in Chicago to understand particulate matter pollution and identify solutions. We work with community partners, focused on south and west side environmental justice communities with high rates of respiratory illnesses. Using handheld monitors on foot or by bike, our street-by-street approach has allowed us to build a granular air quality database with over 12 million PM2.5 data points. We can pinpoint times and places that appear to have consistently elevated levels, to better advocate for clean air policies that improve public health.
Mobile monitoring gives us the unique opportunity to involve local residents in the data collection process. At our digital dashboard, AirQualityChicago.org, anyone can view this city-wide data, learn how air pollution affects their communities, and avoid dangerous hotspots. In 2019, we held our first community monitoring event in McKinley Park with the National Latino Education Institute and Neighbors For Environmental Justice.
ELPC is partnering with Microsoft Research’s Urban Innovation team, Array of Things, City Tech Collaborative, JCDecaux, and the City of Chicago to deploy a network of stationary air quality sensors on 100 bus shelters throughout Chicago. Project Eclipse will help illustrate citywide air quality and particulate matter patterns over time, complementing ELPC’s mobile air monitoring program.
ELPC is working on many fronts to clean up air pollution across the Midwest. We make sure dirty industries clean up or shut down, like the Fisk & Crawford coal plants in Chicago that shuttered in 2010. We shape strong federal and state regulations to protect our air, and we propose solutions for cleaner transportation, like electric school buses, which are now rolling out across the Midwest thanks to ELPC advocacy. We’re even sharing our PM2.5 data with the Chicago Transit Authority so it can prioritize bringing new electric transit buses to the communities most affected by poor air quality.
ELPC is working with the U.S. EPA and the Morton Arboretum to identify Chicago schools facing high traffic pollution exposure that could be good candidates for nature-based remediation. Our children are especially vulnerable to poor air quality, because they breathe 50% more air per pound of bodyweight than adults and their lungs are still developing. Vegetative buffers offer a potential solution, providing a dense planting of trees, bushes, and other plants to physically block pollution in the air, filter particles, and other health benefits. We will incorporate air monitoring to advance scientific research on vegetative buffers, and develop curricula to engage students throughout the process.