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New monitors will collect air quality data where asthma hits hardest

On the sidewalk outside a school building, an electric school sign says, "STAY HEALTHY" under the label "Andrew Douglas Middle School."
Emily Files
Douglas Middle School, pictured in March 2020, is located in 53206 — one of the zip codes most burdened with asthma in Milwaukee.

The COVID-19 pandemic showed just how important the quality of the air around us is. But information on the air right in your community isn’t always available.

A new project aims to change that, particularly for communities of color that bear the brunt of air pollution.

Researchers from the Children’s Health Alliance of Wisconsin, a program of Children’s Wisconsin, will create a community-based network of air quality monitors in Milwaukee. Focused on neighborhoods most burdened with asthma, the project was recently funded by a $500,000 EPA grant.

Asthma is the most common chronic disease in kids. When it’s uncontrolled, asthma sends one in five children to the emergency department each year.

“This costs lots of money,” said Carissa Hoium, who is leading the new air quality monitoring project and serves as program lead for environmental health at the Children’s Health Alliance of Wisconsin. “It also takes kids out of school and takes parents out of work when they’re having to care for those kiddos.”

Longer conversation with Carissa Hoium, environmental health researcher.

Milwaukee’s asthma rate is one and a half times the statewide rate. According to a 2021 report from the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, Milwaukee ranked second in the country for the most asthma-related emergency department visits.

Within the city, asthma affects children living in poverty and children of color more than others.

“Low-income populations and communities of color are more likely to live in areas with poor air quality,” Hoium said. “These groups breathe in far more air pollution than they are creating themselves. It’s really an environmental injustice.”

Hoium said these health inequities are the legacy of racist redlining policies, which siloed communities of color into less desirable parts of the city. Today, this means children in these neighborhoods are not only more likely to develop asthma, but may also have more trouble managing the disease.

“Poor housing conditions and the proximity to transportation corridors and industry, along with a lack of resources to pay for medications, really contribute to poor asthma outcomes in Milwaukee,” Hoium said.

In Wisconsin, climate change is also expected to create more conditions for poor air quality, as temperatures rise and stagnant summer days become more common. Drought, dust storms, and wildfires also generate more particle pollution.

The Breathe SMART project — short for Safely Monitoring Air ‘Round Town — will focus on particulate matter. Specifically PM2.5, referring to the microscopic size of particles just 2.5 microns across (a human hair is about 70 microns across). When they’re inhaled, the tiny particles get trapped in the lungs and can cause trouble with breathing. They are linked to asthma, lung and heart disease, and cancer.

Much of this particulate matter comes from vehicle emissions, largely the focus of the new network. But the air pollution can also come from grills, power plants, wildfires, and manufacturing.

The researchers are targeting the zip codes with the highest rates of hospitalizations and emergency department visits related to asthma. That includes 53206 and 53205 on the north side.

From there, they’re picking schools within those neighborhoods.

Partnering with Milwaukee Public Schools, the team will set up the wifi-connected monitors on the rooftops of those schools.

Students will also be able to take measurements themselves, using portable air quality monitors.

“Students could go outside and use the portable air monitors, kind of do a walk around, see what kinds of things spike the readings on the sensors,” Hoium said.

While air quality can vary block to block, such hyper-local data is hard to find.

“When people want to know really what the air quality is looking like right in their community, that’s what we’re looking to provide,” Hoium said.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources runs three regulatory monitors in Milwaukee. There’s one near the airport, one at 16th St. Health Center, and another near Estabrook Park — none is in the zip codes most burdened with asthma.

Once the monitors are up and running, Hoium said they’ll host workshops to train families and community members how to access information on their neighborhood in real time. They’ll learn what the data means and what they can do to avoid poor air.

“Perhaps go outside and shoot hoops in the driveway in the evening, once the air quality improves,” Hoium said, offering an example of day-to-day decisions community members might make to avoid pollution on an unhealthy air day. “Or maybe today isn’t the best day to open up all of the windows in the house.”

When possible, walking and biking can reduce vehicle emissions. That’s something that could have a cumulative effect across a neighborhood, she said.

The team will also work with the host schools to help reduce students’ exposure to poor air.

“Maybe it’s best to keep kids in for recess on days that the air quality index is reading as very unhealthy,” Hoium said. “Schools can also do activities such as creating idle-free zones.”

More involved measures include electric school buses, or shifting schoolyard designs so that playgrounds don’t sit right next to major thoroughfares, she added.

Over the next three years, the researchers will install monitors at around 15 schools.

More data in the hands of the public is always a good thing, said Erin Lee, a board member of Fight Asthma Milwaukee Allies, or FAM Allies.

“I’m interested in increasing capacity around air quality data,” Lee said. “It’s something that we look for and we use, so I was happy that there were more resources coming to the community.”

In November, the EPA selected two other Wisconsin projects that will monitor air quality in communities overburdened by pollution.

“Too often, one’s zip code determines one’s air quality,” said Rep. Gwen Moore in a release at the time. The environmental justice-focused projects “will empower my constituents with the information and tools to protect their health.”

The DNR received $500,000 to identify local hotspots of air pollution in Milwaukee. The city of Madison received about $430,000 to install a network of 68 air quality sensors, which will also monitor particulate matter.

Lina is a WUWM news reporter.
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