Cleveland’s not breathing easy: New sensors to collect more data on air quality

Federal air quality monitoring devices are scattered throughout the region, leaving large gaps in data. Now, with a new $500,000 federal grant on the horizon, local steps to improve monitoring have already begun.
The white cylinders in this photos are examples of Tetrad Air Sensors, low-cost air sensors being employed to supplement federal air quality monitoring in Cleveland. They were “co-located” at this site on East 14th St. with federal EPA monitors to compare the accuracy of the different devices. (Photo by Bryan Sokolowski)  

In the 40 years Prisicella Fayne has lived at Heritage View Homes on Kinsman Road, the feisty resident has kept watch over the health of this 40-unit public housing estate – even when the culprit is invisible. 

Fayne can sense when something is not quite right. She saw the gentleman on the third floor develop a respiratory condition known as COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). 

“A lot of people in my neighborhood are getting asthma and chronic lung disease,” Fayne said about her east side Cleveland location, mentioning that this was true even before the pandemic brought a new threat to lung health. “Residents aren’t too aware of air quality, but it’s a big concern, the pollutants in the air.” 

Cleveland air quality has repeatedly failed to meet U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards, and the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America ranks the city as the “#2 Asthma Capital” because of its air pollution and higher-than-average asthma rates and complications.  

Monitoring air quality falls under the jurisdiction of the EPA and is an ongoing program that is conducted in partnership with cities like Cleveland through its Division of Air Quality, part of the city’s Department of Health. Federal monitoring devices are placed in specific locations scattered throughout the region, leaving large gaps in data that computer models attempt to cover. 

Last week, the EPA announced a $53.4 million Inflation Reduction Act-funded program to expand air quality monitoring in “underserved and historically marginalized communities” – including a $500,000 grant to the Cleveland Department of Health for new monitoring devices. “Our Air Quality team is very excited to start this project,” said David Hearne, commissioner of the Division of Air Quality, indicating that administrative steps are needed to release the funds, “and they are working diligently to get all of these steps and processes completed as soon as possible.” 

Meanwhile, there’s already an interim — and perhaps game-changing — solution at hand, says Christina Yoka, the director of the Cleveland Division of Air Quality. This past summer, a consortium of nonprofit groups, universities, and the City of Cleveland acted on the calls of those like Fayne to look more closely at the air quality in places not covered by the federal air monitoring devices. Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, along with technologists at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland State University, and DigitalC installed 40 low-cost air quality monitors at libraries and other locations across the city as well as in suburbs such as Berea and Bay Village. 

While monitors can’t bring immediate change to air quality, they can arm researchers and activists with more complete data about pollutants so they better advocate for residents’ health. The additional data collected by the new monitors, says Yoka, fills gaps left by EPA monitors, which are often miles apart from one another and can miss high-pollutant areas. 

Fayne calls for air quality information to not just be collected, but also widely shared with residents. “They could make residents aware of air quality,” Fayne said, adding, “I tell people about the seven levels of air quality (on apps like Weather), where ‘yellow’ is moderate, ‘orange’ is unhealthy and ‘green’ is good. Some people don’t read … There are air quality monitors that change colors and warn people.” 

An air quality monitor at the Rid-All Green Partnership in the Kinsman neighborhood. (Photo by Keymah Durden)

The shortfalls of federal monitoring

Federal monitoring reveals ongoing problems with Cleveland’s air quality. In 2021, the devices measuring air pollutants such as ozone found that Cleveland exceeded the limit set by the EPA on eight days. The EPA penalized Cleveland on October 7 for its air quality problem, moving the city and the metro region into a category known as “moderate non attainment” for ozone, which means the State of Ohio, with input from the city, is obligated to restore the area’s air quality.

With federal monitors already showing dangerous levels of pollutants, advocates are calling for even more information to protect residents. 

“We operate a monitoring network throughout Cuyahoga County,” said Yoka. “But, there’s a lot of ground that is not covered by these monitoring stations.” It’s helpful, she says, when citizens step in to collect data themselves, especially because some high-industry and high-transportation areas aren’t covered by federal monitors. “Since there are several miles between (EPA approved) sites, these projects can give us more information … and we can get a better understanding of what is happening at a local level.” 

When Fayne felt like her pleas for air quality were being overlooked, she signed up to be a neighborhood Climate Ambassador, a program that Cleveland Neighborhood Progress ran in 2018 for the City of Cleveland’s Office of Sustainability to promote environmental action and gather community input for the city’s updated Climate Action Plan

Fayne says she expressed concerns over ventilation in public housing and about living close to sources of dust, and that residents have expressed concern about air quality because of the close proximity of industry.

“We need monitors,” she said, “we need paperwork on air quality.”

A low-cost air quality monitor – the white cylinder on the light pole – on the campus of Case Western Reserve University. (Courtesy of Department of Air Quality, Cleveland Department of Health)

Gathering more data

Now, with the consortium’s installation of 40 low-cost air quality monitors, advocates and the Division of Air Quality hope to use the additional data to connect the dots between air quality and measures of public health.

We will be looking at (Cleveland) Department of Health data on COVID-19 areas of diagnosis for correlation between COVID-19 mortality and particulate matter,” explained Yoka. “We’ll be able to compare with the data from the air sensors in this project.” 

“The more common diagnosis is asthma,” Yoka continued. “The ‘Cleveland Crescent’ is an area within Cleveland that looks like a “C”. Within that crescent we have three times higher cases of pediatric asthma — 23% of children there are diagnosed with asthma — whereas only 8% of children have asthma in the suburbs.”

Instead of waiting for the federal regulators to decide if a neighborhood qualifies for an EPA monitoring device, the consortium, which includes nonprofit internet provider, DigitalC, reached out to Cleveland Public Library about piggybacking the internet-enabled devices — which cost a few hundred dollars, not the tens of thousands of dollars the EPA devices cost — in the locations where DigitalC has received funding from the Cleveland Foundation to expand the public broadband network. 

“The air quality project is a good example of why we’re building a reliable internet network,” said DigitalC’s Director of Technology, Rolando Alvarez, adding that the devices rely on a constant internet connection to receive and upload data to a server. “We will be able to layer connectivity with all of these other projects that can support the lives of Clevelanders.”

The 40 neighborhood air quality monitors were funded by national “Smart Cities” nonprofit organization, US Ignite, and by the National Science Foundation. Local program leaders hope to verify concerns like Fayne’s – to put numbers behind the quantity of pollutants the residents of Heritage View and the surrounding Forgotten Triangle and other Cleveland neighborhoods are breathing. 

“We can look at regional air quality and look at air quality in ZIP codes, knowing that (location) heavily influences air quality,” said Case Western Reserve University professor Nick Barendt. Barendt serves as the executive director of ISSACS, a multidisciplinary research institute at CWRU and as the co-executive director of the Internet of Things (IoT) Collaborative, a partnership between CWRU and Cleveland State University.  “We see a great opportunity to build out an IoT sensing network for the region. Our focus is on public health and understanding the differential nature of particulate pollution across the region.”

With the monitors, Barendt says, researchers will be able to build a data set of the region’s air quality that the City or its activists can use in new ways, like making maps to see where there are wide divergences in air quality. The additional data would also allow researchers – and advocates like Fayne – to see air quality in the context of social vulnerabilities like household income, asthma rates, and access to health care facilities.  

“We are intentional about where we site these devices,” he said. “We deployed a high concentration in the city of Cleveland proper. We have a lower density in the county to allow us to (compare). The data, we hope, is valuable to residents and community activists and helpful to researchers.”

Yoka, who says the data could help as the city embarks on re-writing its air quality code, concluded, “The air sensors are a great tool that community members can use if they want to see the (pollution) levels in their neighborhood. I want to get a better understanding of air quality and how it impacts daily life so that people can take action on poor air quality days. Also, to look at where we can better direct services and where we need to go.”

As the data starts to trickle in, Barendt says his team at Case Western Reserve University is starting to compare air quality across the region. “We’re starting big with the regional airshed, and identifying patterns. It’s about building awareness around air quality. What does it mean, and what is the air quality in your neighborhood compared to others?”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article misspelled Nick Barendt’s name and mistakenly said that Cleveland had failed EPA particulate standards, when in fact it failed EPA ozone standards. The description of the IoT Collaborative has also been clarified.

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