Four individuals stand next to a pole with monitoring equipment next to a brick building.
Air Quality Monitoring Program Air quality monitors at St. Ann Parish Church in Normandy, Missouri. The people in the photo are (l-r) David Yeom, Tyler Cargill, Li Zhyiao and Father Nick Winker. © Beth Gutzler

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Community-based Air Quality Monitoring Effort Launches in St. Louis

AirWatch St. Louis is making the data and research on air pollution easily accessible.

Launching today, a new online hub will help everyone track air quality in specific St. Louis communities. The new site, AirWatch St. Louis—Community-based Air Quality Monitoring, offers access to data, updated hourly, that people can use to help protect their health and well-being. It provides information about the types of pollutants that researchers, residents and community leaders can use to address health problems that have plagued historically disenfranchised neighborhoods for generations in St. Louis and St. Louis County.

Funding and support for the project has been provided by Missouri Foundation for Health, Anthropocene Institute and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

AirWatch St. Louis’ new online home is the next step in a faith-based collaboration to track air pollutants. Metropolitan Congregations United (MCU) is working with researchers from the Jay Turner Group research lab at Washington University as well as environmental justice organizers, community leaders and The Nature Conservancy in Missouri to tackle one of the key health concerns identified in a 2019 report. The collaboration will also include the second-annual Air Quality Bridge Rally on July 23.

Air pollution lands hardest on neighborhoods in St. Louis where the majority of residents are Black, according to the Environmental Racism Report prepared by the Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic at Washington University School of Law. The report identified glaring disparities in serious health issues among zip codes and races. In just one example, Black children in St. Louis went to the hospital with asthma attacks nearly 11 times as often as white children. Along with asthma, air pollution can cause a broad range of problems for people, including increased rates of heart attacks, birth defects and respiratory illnesses. The 2019 report found that majority-Black neighborhoods were often near major sources of pollution, such as smog-producing industrial sites, heavily trafficked highways and poorly managed building demolitions.

Despite the well-documented health disparities, there has been a gap in the data about air quality at the neighborhood level. Starting in 2021, MCU and researchers from the Jay Turner Group began installing sensors to collect this vital information. The sensors are sited with equity in mind and are primarily located on church buildings. Recruitment started with hotspots of asthma attacks, and sites are diverse in demographics. In a unique partnership, AirWatch St. Louis makes data from the sensors transparent in an easy-to-use format through the new online hub, using the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s color-coded system to display changing threat levels. The site also provides a wealth of information about the project and air quality with more updates to come.

Tyler Cargill, the Turner Group: "The Turner group at WashU specializes in performing field campaigns to understand air quality on various spatial scales. In collaboration with MCU, we are using 15 low-cost particulate matter (PM) sensors in the St. Louis region to identify whether PM pollution varies geographically throughout the year. By having these sensors at congregations, we are hoping to engage with the community in all aspects of the project. For instance, during sensor installations, we inform anyone in attendance on the methodology behind our practices with the hopes of relaying this information to more residents. To continue fostering this transparency with the community, we plan to hold periodic data analysis update meetings at the congregations. This way, all people willing to attend, regardless of faith, can engage in the dialogue surrounding air quality in St. Louis. These conversations are crucial to ensure future air quality initiatives are in the best interest of the people.”

Sister Dolores Sanchez, environmental justice team member for Metropolitan Congregations United: “More than just the theme of our 2nd annual Air Quality Bridge Rally, ‘Air—a Matter of Life or Death’ challenges us to recognize that the St. Louis and Metro East regions suffer some major problems with air quality, disproportionately impacting communities of color. Join MCU, our Illinois counterpart UCM and partners like the Sierra Club and The Nature Conservancy at 9 a.m. on Saturday, July 23 on the McKinley Bridge, to act together for good air quality; and check out air quality in your area by accessing our new webpage, AirWatch St. Louis!”

Nicole Ditto, Central Baptist Church Green Team: “As a historical institution and advocate for environmental justice, Central Baptist Church is delighted to serve as one of many churches to host an air quality monitor in the greater St. Louis Region. Because of Central Baptist Church’s unique location in the 19th Ward community of St. Louis City, both church leaders and disciples are poised to understand and relate to the disproportionate impact of air pollution on the Black community. Central Baptist Church is committed to standing with other congregations across the metropolitan St. Louis area to ensure better air quality for all!”

As more data is collected from the sensors, researchers expect to identify trends that will provide a more complete picture of air quality in neighborhoods and a better understanding of what contribution pollutants may be making to the health of people who live there.

At 9 a.m. on July 23, the project partners will host the Air Quality Bridge Rally on the McKinley Bridge to increase bi-state awareness of this important environmental justice issue and highlight ways that the community can get involved. There will be a kick-off meeting for the rally online at 6:30 p.m. on June 28. For more information about the rally, contact JD Dixon at jdixon@ucmetroeast.org or Sister Dolores Sanchez at sr.dolores@mcustl.com.

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About The Nature Conservancy:
The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world’s toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. Working in 75 countries and territories: 37 by direct conservation impact and 38 through partners, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector and other partners.

In 2018, The Nature Conservancy launched its first Missouri cities program in the St. Louis region. The program’s goal is to reduce local stormwater and flooding challenges, improve water and air quality, and enhance habitat for both people and nature through equity-centered green infrastructure and nature-based solutions.

Together with our members and conservation partners, The Nature Conservancy has protected more than 150,000 acres of critical Missouri lands since 1956. To learn more visit  www.nature.org/missouri.

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world’s toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 76 countries and territories—37 by direct conservation impact and 39 through partners—we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.