Earth Day 2021: Working With Community Members to Measure Air Quality in Environmental Justice Communities

By Martin Suuberg

As we mark Earth Day 2021, amid a health crisis caused by a global pandemic, the principle of environmental justice is a priority that is and must remain front-and-center in our efforts to protect the environment and the public health. The importance of addressing environmental justice was underscored by new provisions calling for redoubled efforts in the important climate legislation signed by Governor Baker earlier this month.

Cities like Chelsea have not only been overburdened by pollution, they also have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Reports have shown the issue of air pollution can worsen COVID-19 outcomes, and that these issues have had a serious impact on environmental justice communities in the Commonwealth over the past year. This strongly underscores the human cost of air pollution and the need to continue work to reduce air pollution and ensure we have the best possible data to inform our decisions.

The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) is taking steps this year to expand our air monitoring network. By doing so, we can collect up-to-date scientific data and provide communities like Chelsea with more local information that can help us all measure progress and develop policies and programs to address areas bearing the burden of pollution.

Using state funds and a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), we are implementing two programs in the City of Chelsea with the help of city officials, environmental justice organizations, and city residents.

First, MassDEP has placed a new air monitoring station in Highland Park in Chelsea that takes continuous air samples to measure fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and samples to measure volatile organic compounds (VOCs). I am happy to report that the monitoring station is now operational This station will give the community important information about local air quality and enable MassDEP to better work with the community to identify sources of pollution and implement emissions reduction and mitigation strategies to protect residents’ health.

The new Chelsea air monitoring station joins our network of 23 air monitoring stations throughout the Commonwealth, which provide near real-time information about air quality to the public and provide short- and long-term data on air pollution that informs our strategies to protect public health. That data is available for anyone to see on our MassAir Online webpage.

The second program is an exciting new way to expand our air monitoring capability beyond the state’s permanent monitoring stations – using small air quality sensors to measure pollutants. We’ve started this program in Chelsea and are expanding it to additional communities through a new MassDEP grant program.

Working with the City of Chelsea, the City Council, GreenRoots and local citizens, we recently helped the community place nine softball-sized “PurpleAir” sensors throughout the city to expand the measurement of PM2.5, and we placed a sensor at the new Highland Park monitoring station. PM2.5 is a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air and made up of hundreds of different chemicals. PM2.5 is so small that it can be inhaled deep into the lungs and may even enter a person’s bloodstream, and it can cause serious health complications. These sensors can identify areas with higher pollution levels where mitigation efforts can be directed to protect public health.

To extend this effort to additional environmental justice communities, I am pleased to announce a new MassDEP grant program that will make PM2.5 air sensors available to communities across the Commonwealth. This new grant program will provide up to 10 PurpleAir sensors to communities to give to residents and local community organizations to place throughout their city or town. You can see the data produced by these sensors at PurpleAir.com, and together with MassDEP’s PM2.5 monitoring data, at fire.airnow.gov.

The Baker-Polito Administration and MassDEP are committed to addressing toxic air emissions impacting communities across the Commonwealth – especially those environmental justice communities that have historically carried this burden of our industrial legacy. We look forward to working with communities like Chelsea, environmental justice advocates, and residents to collect the data and develop measurable progress to ensure all families are breathing clean, healthy air. Martin Suuberg is the Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection

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