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East Boston Launching Novel Neighborhood-scale Air Quality Monitoring Network

AIR Inc., Aerodyne Research and Olin College Collaborating on Pilot Project

Taking matters in their own hands, the citizens of East Boston are taking the first steps toward monitoring and understanding their own air quality.  To break the paradigm that pollution monitoring is solely the realm of the EPA or the polluters themselves, East Boston will roll out a novel pilot for measuring air quality on a neighborhood scale.  This is made possible through a lower-cost sensor system recently developed by Aerodyne Research, Inc. of Billerica, MA, and students and faculty at Olin College who are expanding its application.  AIR Inc., an East Boston airport mitigation advocacy group, is playing a major role in coordinating efforts within the community. East Boston is host to Logan Airport, Boston’s international hub for air travel, and a significant source of noise and hazardous air pollutants to the surrounding communities.

Exposure to degraded air quality is responsible for 1 in 8 deaths globally, and in the United States air pollution accounts for approximately 3 times as many deaths as drug overdose and 6 times as many deaths as traffic accidents annually. These deaths are concentrated in communities near major sources of fuel combustion.

“This could be important technology for neighborhoods across the country who want to empower their citizens with accurate air pollutant exposure data on which to take action for a healthier life style,” said Gail Miller, AIR Inc. President. 

Current air quality measuring systems such as those established and operated by the EPA, are cost prohibitive at approximately $250,000 per site. As a result, even the most polluted urban areas can only operate a handful of these regulatory monitoring sites. Metro Boston has four such sites.  Existing EPA monitoring networks are designed to measure regional air quality, and report pollutant concentrations on an hourly or daily basis. But personal exposure to dangerous air pollutants can vary substantially over distances of a few blocks or a few seconds and EPA’s regulatory monitoring is not set up to capture or characterize this variability. Access to air quality data that is collected is limited and requires significant time and expertise to understand.

“Through this collaboration with East Boston and Aerodyne, we are prototyping a more affordable, accurate and community-enabled air quality monitoring system that will begin to capture an individual’s true exposure to air pollutants,” said Scott Hersey, Assistant Professor of Chemical and Environmental Engineering at Olin.

This summer, AIR Inc., Olin College and Aerodyne plan to install eight to twelve ARISense instruments around East Boston, at a fraction of the cost of a single EPA monitoring site. Each sensor node will continuously measure the gas-phase pollutants carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide (CO2) nitric oxide (NO), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), and ozone (O3), as well as the mass concentration of fine and coarse particulate matter (PM), and all relevant meteorological conditions. Through Olin’s senior capstone program called SCOPE, a team of Olin seniors supported by Aerodyne will continue the project into the fall.  Additionally they will spend the entire 2018/2019 academic year testing and refining the monitoring network, and building a community-centered software system and user interface that provides residents with real-time, locally-relevant air quality data. The team aims to enable community members to pro-actively limit their exposure to air pollutants.

Olin students, Taylor Sheneman ’19 and Christine Dimke ’18, are beginning to install instruments, validating the data collected by the ARISense instruments and compare the results to more costly EPA-grade measurements.

The students will be spending time with East Boston citizens to address their specific informational needs and make sure the technological interface is easy to use. 

“We have a uniquely powerful opportunity to advance our understanding of neighborhood scale air quality through this project,” said Eben Cross, Senior Scientist at Aerodyne Research and ARISense R&D lead. “While developing a solution is complex, we are fortunate to have a highly invested and active citizenry in East Boston, combined with a student team from one of the best practice-based engineering schools in the world.”