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They tracked Beloit’s air quality. A global report put their bad air on the map.

a man stands on a ladder to install a small white device outside a building's main entrance
Healthy Climate Wisconsin
One of the sensors is installed outside the Beloit's Department of Public Works.

At Beloit College, a white device around the size of a teacup hangs over the column-lined porch of the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity. Plugged into an outlet on the porch, it works around the clock, collecting data on particulate matter, or PM2.5 — pollution from burning fossil fuels that, at just 2.5 microns across, is tiny enough to penetrate the lungs. Exposure can lead to cancer, asthma, lung and heart disease.

Environmental studies professor Pablo Toral encouraged his students to adopt the device and learn more about the air here. Rock County has among the highest rates of both carbon dioxide emissions and asthma hospitalizations in the state.

“I always announce projects in class to see if any students want to participate and normally students from TKE are eager to try new things,” Toral said. “They’re very enterprising.”

I started to take photos, but not before Toral spotted a beer can and tossed it in the trash. Definitely a college campus.

The sensor is part of a network that’s been measuring air pollution in Beloit for the last year and a half, born of an effort to connect the dots between planet-warming fossil fuels and the community’s health.

“When you look at where higher-polluting industry often goes, it goes to communities that have higher levels of poverty, more diversity,” said Brittany Keyes, a physical therapist who previously served as vice president of the Beloit City Council. “Beloit seems to be checking all these boxes.”

Keyes and Toral teamed up, working with other volunteers to borrow monitors from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and survey their city’s air for the first time. The citizen scientists installed monitors on schools and community centers. Their project was sponsored by the Thriving Earth Exchange, a community science program, and supported by the advocacy group Healthy Climate Wisconsin, then known as the Wisconsin Health Professionals for Climate Action.

a brick building with "TKE" on the front awning has a small white device positioned on the edge of the porch overhang
Lina Tran
One of the Beloit air sensors collects data from the TKE fraternity porch on Beloit College.

Beloit lands on a global report

Fast forward a year, and the Swiss tech company IQAir used their data for its sixth annual world air quality report, which assesses publicly available data from more than 30,000 monitors across the globe. Some are operated by government agencies, while others are run by schools, nonprofits and citizen scientists like those in Beloit.

The report ranked the city’s air as the worst in the country.

According to Toral, Beloit’s poor air stems from factories, vehicle emissions and a nearby fossil fuel-run power plant. Last summer, smoke from extreme wildfires in Canada made a bad situation much worse. Climate change creates hotter, drier conditions that fuel wildfires like this.

Toral said the good news is, they got the data to track the spate of unhealthy air.

“The bad news is that now we make the world news as the most polluted city in the U.S.,” he continued. “Which is not probably the case. We just happened to test the air.”

Toral expects there are many communities across both the state and country that are burdened with unhealthier air than Beloit’s; they’re just not measuring it. Toral hopes this brings attention to the importance of testing in communities of all sizes — not just the biggest cities.

“The visibility that this report has given us should make everybody realize that the worst pollution might not be happening where we’re testing,” he said. “So we have people who are probably exposed to serious cases of pollution that they don’t know [about].”

a white woman holds a small white device outside. to her right, a shorter latina woman smiles
Healthy Climate Wisconsin
Brittany Keyes, who previously served on the Beloit City Council, smiles with Angelina Reyes outside the Merrill Community Center before they install one of the PurpleAir sensors.

In a briefing on the report, IQAir global CEO Frank Hammes said while citizen-run monitors may not be as precise as those used by governments for regulation, they are useful for their cost and accessibility.

Regulatory-grade monitors don’t “help you if you have one every 1000 kilometers, right?” he said. “I would say the accuracy and the representativeness of what’s being measured by citizens these days is good enough to give governments a very good opportunity to understand what’s going on.”

In the project’s planning phase, the Beloit volunteers worked with the state DNR. The DNR provided a conversion factor that would help bring their data more in line with regulatory monitors.

It’s localized information that IQAir wants to see people using on a day-to-day basis.

“We really encourage people to look at air quality data and treat it just like you would the weather in preparing for your day,” said Christi Schroeder, an air quality science manager for the company.

The report highlights where data access falls short and notes that the majority of countries surveyed fail to meet the World Health Organization’s recommended limit for annual PM2.5 exposure: 5 micrograms per cubic meter. That includes the U.S., where the EPA has recently tightened its standards for particle pollution, bringing the limit down from 12 to 9 micrograms per cubic meter.

The city of Beloit rejected the report, saying Wisconsin meets federal air quality standards. During last summer’s smoke-filled days, the city says it took appropriate action by canceling outdoor programming for kids.

Currently, the EPA allows state regulators to strike wildfire-polluted days from the record, enabling them to continue to meet federal air standards. That data was not excluded from the IQAir analysis.

“Wisconsin is largely under-monitored to not monitored,” said Brittany Keyes, the physical therapist. “The city did pivot to what the DNR says, that the air is okay. But I struggle with being able to confidently say that or accept that, when there are no particulate matter monitors in Beloit or Rock County.”

The right to know

a tall thin man stands at a podium in front of a chalkboard and projector and speaks
Lina Tran
Pablo Toral leads a discussion in his course on international political economy and the environment at Beloit College.

Back at Beloit College on a recent March morning, professor Pablo Toral led a discussion in his class on political economy and the environment. After coaxing definitions from his students on climate and environmental justice, they explored a principle called the "right to know": People have a right to the information that's necessary for informed environmental decision-making.

“So if there is a polluting industry in our neighborhood, we should be able to know what it is, who’s polluting and what’s being polluted,” Toral said to the class.

Then it was time for the students to share their homework. After introducing them to different data tools like the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory and Greenhouse Gas Inventory, Toral asked students to look up pollution sources in their hometowns.

Fourth-year political science major and Dallas native Javier Peña read about a dairy company that releases nitrates, which are linked to cancer and poor birth outcomes.

“That was right by a fishing creek that I’ve always fished at, I know people [who] fish at, my uncle fishes there a lot,” he said.

It was a realization he thinks should be more accessible.

“These are things that are readily available, but who’s really ever gonna go and look at stuff like this,” Peña said. “It’s really hard to access. Even myself, I had trouble getting specifics out and understanding what exactly was falling directly into those waters.”

a group of diverse high schoolers smiles outside and points up to a small white device
Alisha Saley
Healthy Climate Wisconsin
The Beloit citizen scientists worked with AP environmental science students at Beloit Memorial High School to install one of the air quality sensors.

This “a-ha” moment, Toral said, helps his students grasp the importance of data access. He pointed to nearby Madison and Milwaukee. As the state’s biggest cities seek to decarbonize, they’ve bought shares of the Beloit utility’s natural gas-run power.

“It’s further going to make things very difficult for Beloit,” Toral said. “Because if those emissions are retiring in different places and Beloit is going to have those emissions for decades to come, Beloit is going to have to deal with the health consequences that come with that.”

Toral said knowledge is how you empower residents — and bring them to the table when these decisions are being made.

Want to learn about air quality in your community?

The EPA air sensor loan program offers equipment for members of the public to borrow. These Beloit residents borrowed six PurpleAir sensors for six months. After the loan period was up, the group raised funds to purchase identical sensors of their own and ensure the network would operate long-term.

Lina is a WUWM news reporter.
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