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Operation Healthy Air:

Pulling Answers Out of Thin Air 

By Jon Gorey

How do you mobilize people and policymakers to understand and take action against a threat they can’t see? How do you get students engaged in scientific inquiry around something as boring and banal as the air they breathe? By turning an invisible threat into tangible data.

Air pollution is responsible for some 107,000 premature deaths each year in the United States, according to research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences—making it more deadly than car accidents. And poor air quality causes about 7 million deaths annually worldwide, according to the World Health Organization

And yet, unhealthy air often envelops us in secret. Photographs of New Delhi and other cities during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when contrasted against their pre-pandemic, smog-smothered skylines, provided some rare, literally clear evidence of just how suffocating unhealthy air can be. But for the most part, air that’s laden with ground level ozone and the fine particulate matter emitted by everything from car engines to power plants to farm equipment is an invisible killer. 

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“Most of the time it's not as extreme as in Delhi,” says Dr. Mark Chandler, director of research initiatives at Earthwatch. “It's basically invisible, and one of the things that we need to do is make it visible.” That’s the mission of Earthwatch’s Operation Healthy Air (OHA) initiative, a program that has enlisted students, teachers, corporate employees, and other community members to monitor air quality in locations all around the world.

OHA participants receive a relatively low-cost PurpleAir sensor, which measures particulate matter in the air (such as dust, smoke, and other particles) and continually reports levels to an open-sourced database. This air quality data has important long- and short-term applications: Not only is it tracking local air quality trends with scientific precision, it can also help at-risk populations reduce exposure to dangerous air in real time. 

The more sensors that are active, the more detailed picture the data can paint about which areas experience poor air quality and when—not to mention why, and what can be done about it. “We need this level of information to take the right kinds of action,” Chandler says. “These low-cost monitoring devices really help us get a level of detailed information about where and when bad air quality happens, and that allows for more specific action.” 

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Earthwatch Operation Healthy Air participants receive a relatively low-cost PurpleAir sensor, which measures particulate matter in the air (such as dust, smoke, and other particles) and continually reports levels to an open-sourced database.

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As Chandler explains, poor air quality presents two distinct threats that operate on different timelines. When particulate matter spikes to dangerously high levels in the air, even temporarily, it creates an immediate risk for health problems such as asthma attacks, respiratory infections, higher blood pressure, and heart attacks. Children, the elderly, and people with certain health conditions are particularly at risk when air quality reaches unsafe levels. 

Meanwhile, prolonged exposure to elevated levels of particulate matter—air quality that wouldn’t be considered good, but isn’t immediately threatening to most people—can still cause long-term health issues. Living in an area that routinely experiences higher levels of air pollution can increase a person’s risk of developing asthma, chronic bronchitis, lung cancer, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), for example.  

“It's one of the largest killers, but it also impacts morbidity rates, so it affects your quality of life,” Chandler says. It’s not just about health problems, either: Bad air quality has even been shown to impact students’ test scores and concentration. And more often than not, the effects of poor air quality are disproportionately borne by low-income neighborhoods and by people of color. “People who are hit by all those other bad things that we know occur in the world also suffer from the worst air quality,” he says, “so there's a justice element to this.”.  

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When particulate matter spikes to dangerously high levels in the air, even temporarily, it creates an immediate risk for health problems such as asthma attacks, respiratory infections, higher blood pressure, and heart attacks  |  Earthwatch

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The Long- and Short-Term of It

Educator Mary Walls, founder and director of Action Driven Inquiry, has been involved with Operation Healthy Air since it started in Southern California a few years ago. Most recently, Walls helped five schools in California’s San Bernardino County create an inquiry-based STEM curriculum using real-time air quality data from a location central to any child’s life: their school.

Each participating school (two elementary, one middle, and two high schools) received a pair of PurpleAir sensors with support and funding from Earthwatch and OHA’s corporate partners, which include E&Y, UPS, Alcoa, and AIG. That allowed students to create and run experiments centered on real-world data—their-world data—helping them visualize and confront both the short- and long-term threats of poor air quality in and around their schools.  

For example, an eighth-grade class decided to place one sensor near the front entrance of their school, and one behind the building, near a cluster of trees. The comparison allowed students to see dramatic spikes in particulate matter at the front of their school during pick-up and drop-off hours, which led to a discussion of possible solutions, such as introducing a no-idling policy. 

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That was really helpful for those students, to see an immediate use of data, and how data can reveal problems that are really invisible.

Mary Walls, Founder and director of Action Driven Inquiry

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As the different schools started discussing their sensor readings with each other, the data also uncovered some of the hidden inequalities that permeate everything—right down to the air we breathe. The schools in more resourced areas tended to have better air quality than those in more industrial neighborhoods, opening the eyes and minds of students and teachers alike. “That started opening up discussions of, ‘OK, who’s responsible, and what do we do about it?’” Walls says. “It was like empathy to action.” 

When COVID shutdowns hit, the program had to shift entirely online, and Walls feared it might lose momentum. But the abrupt halt in travel and traffic also presented some new opportunities. “We had this new set of data with a new variable… we could look at the local air quality pre-shutdown and during shutdown and compare them,” Walls says. 

“That was really eye-opening in social justice terms. The wealthier neighborhoods had a really dramatic improvement in air quality, but the schools near logistics centers—where there are a lot of shipping routes—their air quality actually got worse, even in the shutdown,” Walls says. 

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Educator Mary Walls, founder and director of Action Driven Inquiry, has been involved with Operation Healthy Air since it started in Southern California a few years ago. Most recently, Walls helped five schools in California’s San Bernardino County create an inquiry-based STEM curriculum using real-time air quality data from a location central to any child’s life: their school | Earthwatch.

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Amazon alone has opened up more than a dozen nearby warehouses and distribution centers in the past two years. With their own data giving shape to the situation like a connect-the-dots picture, even students from other communities could now see the impact those delivery trucks were having on their peers. “Suddenly the wealthier schools were thinking about how their own consumption was harming other neighborhoods 15 miles away,” she says.  

“Often teachers are taught to be neutral—science is science,” Walls adds. ”But this helped them realize how important the human side of science is as a human endeavor, and the importance of empathy and realizing that your experience isn’t everyone’s experience.”

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Insights to Action 

In addition to helping educators engage and inspire students with a STEM curriculum centered on real-world air quality readings, Earthwatch is also working with scientists to interpret that data, translating insights into action. Just as air pollution poses both acute and cumulative hazards, so does it demand both immediate and long-term responses. 

Since air quality can change—and be improved, even at a local level—that makes it a more feasible fight than some other global challenges, Chandler says. “This is a human caused thing that we can actually manage,” he says. “The cycle of cause and effect is much tighter, so we can actually do something about it.”

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At the local level, no-idling policies and encouraging active transportation options are among the tools available to reduce air pollution  |  Earthwatch.

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At the local level, no-idling policies and encouraging active transportation options are among the tools available to reduce air pollution. Globally, it will take enforcing air quality standards and ramping up the adoption of renewable energy. 

But awareness is critical, too, because the most direct, immediate solution is reduced exposure at the personal level. Everyone ought to roll up their car windows when sitting in traffic, for instance, and use an exhaust fan over their stove while cooking (or open a window). People with asthma, COPD, or other respiratory conditions, meanwhile, need to be even more vigilant. Some OHA participants can use their PurpleAir sensors to monitor the air outside and determine whether it’s safe to go for a walk, for example, or if they’d better wait until later in the evening to go outdoors. 

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 Some OHA participants can use their PurpleAir sensors to monitor the air outside and determine whether it’s safe to go for a walk, for example, or if they’d better wait until later in the evening to go outdoors  |  Earthwatch.

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It’s by no means fair that the people living amidst pollution bear the burden of avoiding it. “People who live in the most impacted areas are least likely to have caused the problem, but they have to pay the consequences, by changing their behavior to get out of the way of pollution—so it sort of compounds the justice element,” Chandler says. But as a short-term measure, empowering at-risk people to understand and track local air quality can save lives and improve health outcomes, by helping them avoid the dangers of a bad air day. 

That’s one reason Arnetta Baty joined Operation Healthy Air in Boston. As president of the nonprofit Rounding the Bases, which provides support to seniors, immigrants, and low-income families, Baty has things to do and places to be—and she’s an avid gardener and walker, too. But between her asthma, pollen allergies, and a lung disease called sarcoidosis, Baty found that, some days, simply going outdoors made her feel ill. 

Now, Baty has two PurpleAir sensors—one at home, and one mobile device—that alert her to the current air quality according to a traffic-light color coding system: from green (good) to red and purple (dangerous). Baty treats the readings with the same respect as an actual stoplight. 

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“I need to know what’s facing me before I go outside, I have [a sensor] in my house, and one that walks around with me—and if it’s showing red or purple, I don’t get out of my car. If the one in my backyard shows red or purple, I don’t go in the backyard. If it changes color, I don’t even open the back door with the pollen coming off the trees.” 

Arnetta Baty, President, Rounding the Bases

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While in some ways she’s at the mercy of the air outside, when Baty checks her air sensors, she also feels empowered by the data before her—because it gives her more control over her health. Baty has even presented on Operation Healthy Air and the importance of air quality at the computer class for seniors that she teaches. “I’m just trying to figure out how to continue to do the things I love to do without getting sick,” she says. 

That’s what makes Operation Healthy Air such a powerful tool for scientific engagement. “The reason air quality is particularly interesting and impactful is because it's relevant—people get human health,” Chandler says. People increasingly understand that air quality matters, that it can change, and that they can take direct action on it. “These three things together make it a really good way to kickstart people to start thinking about the environment. It’s a model to start saying, ‘Pay attention to your environment—environmental change has real health impacts.”  

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