Air pollution remains a significant environmental and health threat, affecting communities worldwide. The quality of the air we breathe impacts our well-being and the sustainability of our cities. As concerns regarding air pollution continue to grow, citizen science and environmental monitoring initiatives have emerged as powerful tools to address this global challenge.
In this blog post, we will explore the concept of citizen science and how it can help communities achieve cleaner air. We will also outline three interesting case studies of community-academic partnerships from the US and Europe.
Citizen science refers to the involvement of individuals, often non-professionals, in scientific research and data collection. A collaborative effort that engages community members in gathering information, analyzing data, and contributing to scientific knowledge, this approach recognizes that everyone, regardless of their scientific background, can make valuable contributions to understanding and solving complex environmental issues.
The importance of citizen science lies in its ability to bridge the gap between scientific expertise and public engagement. Involving citizens in the process democratizes science and empowers individuals to take an active role in environmental monitoring. This bottom-up approach not only enhances the quantity of data collected but also taps into the local knowledge and experiences of community members, leading to a more comprehensive understanding of air pollution and its impact on people's lives.
Engaging citizens in environmental monitoring significantly expands the scale and scope of data collection. With a large network of individuals participating in monitoring activities, data from a wider geographic area can be collected, allowing for a more accurate air quality assessment. This comprehensive data provides a solid foundation for evidence-based decision-making and the development of effective air pollution mitigation strategies.
Citizen science initiatives create opportunities for environmental education and raise awareness regarding the impact of air pollution. By actively participating in monitoring activities, individuals gain firsthand experience and knowledge about air pollution's sources, causes, and effects. This increased understanding leads to informed decision-making and empowers citizens to take action to reduce pollution in their daily lives.
Involving citizens in environmental monitoring initiatives makes them stakeholders in the decision-making process. By engaging with the data collected, community members can contribute to discussions and provide input on policies and measures to address air pollution. This inclusive approach encourages governments and policymakers to consider public perspectives, leading to more effective and accepted solutions.
Citizen science initiatives promote community empowerment by fostering a sense of ownership and responsibility towards the local environment. By actively participating in monitoring efforts, individuals develop a deeper connection to their surroundings and are more motivated to take collective action to improve air quality. Additionally, these initiatives often facilitate collaboration between community members, local organizations, and scientists, creating networks that work towards cleaner air.
The first example of community engagement in research is an inspiring initiative of an official air quality monitoring association for the Hauts-de-France region, Atmo Hauts-de-France, along with their Belgian partners Institut Scientifique de Service Public, Vlaamse MilieuMaatschappij, and Agence Wallonne de l'Air et du Climat.
The project #TransfAIR aimed to manage air quality across borders in Flanders, Hauts-de-France, and Wallonia, as well as foster regional collaboration and increased public awareness about clean air. The project integrated Atmotube PRO, a portable air quality monitoring device, in a gamified format. From 2019 to 2022, the partners empowered individuals and families to actively monitor and improve air quality. The centerpiece was the "AERO Adventure" game, which educated citizens about air quality in an engaging way. Atmotube PRO provided real-time data about the air quality inside and outside homes.
During the AERO Adventure game, 150 families, including 249 children aged six to 12, embarked on a transformative journey to discover the impact of air quality on their daily lives. As they began this educational adventure, they were equipped with Atmotube PRO devices. The game's activities were carefully tailored to suit the age group, ensuring that children could grasp the importance of clean air in a fun and interactive way.
An astounding 94% of participants expressed enjoyment of the game, highlighting the ease of use of Atmotube PRO devices. The game succeeded in its mission to educate, with an overwhelming 97% of families stating that it allowed them to acquire fresh insights into air quality.
The most significant outcome of the AERO Adventure game was the positive change in behavior among families. Encouraged by the knowledge they gained and the gamified experience, 71% of participants affirmed that they had altered their behaviors to support cleaner air. From simple everyday actions such as reducing car usage, choosing environmentally friendly products, and actively engaging in advocacy, these families became ambassadors for change.
The pilot study "Community-Engaged Use of Low-Cost Sensors to Assess the Spatial Distribution of PM2.5 Concentrations across Disadvantaged Communities: Results from a Pilot Study in Santa Ana, CA" conducted in Santa Ana, CA, is an excellent example of air pollutants disproportionately located near low-income communities and communities of color. The study was conducted through a partnership between the University of California, Irvine, and a local California-based community organization called GREEN-MPNA.
PM2.5 is a harmful air pollutant that affects human health. In Santa Ana, community members expressed specific concerns about its impact on low-income communities and communities of color along the nearby industrial corridor. To address this, trained community volunteers utilized Atmotube PRO and real-time GPS tracking devices to measure outdoor PM2.5 concentrations at various locations.
The study found that the levels of PM2.5 (fine particulate matter) varied based on the region, time of day, and month. Higher concentrations were observed near the industrial area of the city, causing concerns among the local community. While there was some correlation between elevated air pollution and freeway systems, two out of four sampling days did not show a clear association with freeway traffic. Socioeconomically disadvantaged communities generally had higher levels of PM2.5 compared to other areas.
This research demonstrated the effectiveness of using low-cost air pollution sensors in community-engaged research. It allowed for extensive air monitoring and increased awareness and empowerment within the community. The study also highlighted the persistent environmental health disparities in urban areas. This information can be used to make informed decisions regarding health equity, urban planning, and community resource access. The study emphasized the importance of collaboration between scientific researchers and community members to address environmental hazards and advocate for policy changes.
The final example is the RI-URBANS project, a recent research project supported by the European Commission. This study was conducted in nine cities around Europe by the Flemish Institute for Technological Research (VITO), Utrecht University, the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal), the University of Birmingham, the Imperial College London, the University of Helsinki, and the National Observatory of Athens.
The study discussed the limitations of fixed air quality monitoring stations and proposes a complementary approach using mobile sensing platforms and fixed sensor networks to assess pollutant concentrations in urban areas. The aim is to create detailed pollution maps for health studies and urban policy assessment. The study is focused on outdoor pollution maps that can assess personal exposure, detect hot spots, and confirm models by utilizing low-cost sensors.
Additionally, the study emphasizes the value of involving citizens in air quality monitoring. It highlights that many people are concerned about air quality but lack knowledge about regulations and pollution levels. Citizen science projects offer a cost-effective way to gather reliable and up-to-date air quality data, particularly for pollutants with varying spatial distribution. These projects can complement official monitoring stations, which are often limited in number. Citizen involvement can also raise public awareness, influence environmental education, and lead to long-term behavioral changes.
Citizen science and environmental monitoring initiatives engage communities, promote cleaner air, and foster sustainable cities. By involving citizens in data collection, environmental awareness is heightened, and individuals become active decision-makers. Beyond gathering data, citizen science cultivates responsibility, empowerment, and engagement among community members, contributing to a healthier and more sustainable future for all.