Every day is Earth Day to Emory researcher

Eri Saikawa is an associate professor of Environmental Sciences at Emory University,
Eri Saikawa is an associate professor of Environmental Sciences at Emory University,

Credit: Jack Kearse

Credit: Jack Kearse

The Emory professor whose research led to the discovery of lead deposits in Atlanta’s Westside is now sharing her passion for environmental awareness with metro area students.

Dr. Eri Saikawa is heading up the Georgia Air Quality Challenge, an experimental design challenge, in which student finalists will be announced on Earth Day today. The students, in grades six to 12, partner with Emory’s air quality network to determine the placement of sensors in local communities to fill in the gaps in Georgia’s air quality data.

“We want young people to understand the importance of monitoring air quality,” she said. “We also hope they learn more about sources of air pollution, who may be more vulnerable, and think about ways we might mitigate pollution.”

Through local and federal funding, students received access to lessons about sources of pollution, current data for Georgia and how air sensors can measure air quality. Saikawa said more than two dozen submissions came in from schools in Fulton, DeKalb, Cherokee and Atlanta.

This year’s international Earth Day observance, themed “Restore Our Earth, features three days of streamed events, including a global youth summit held earlier this week. There is an increased awareness and interest among students about the environment, Saikawa said.

“They are much more willing to do whatever they can to make a change.

“Every day is Earth Day to me, as I hope it will be for everyone.”

Rosario Hernandez (left), Historic Westside Gardens member and a Westside resident, works alongside Eri Saikawa, associate professor of Environmental Sciences at Emory University, gathering soil samples for testing in the neighborhood.
Rosario Hernandez (left), Historic Westside Gardens member and a Westside resident, works alongside Eri Saikawa, associate professor of Environmental Sciences at Emory University, gathering soil samples for testing in the neighborhood.

Credit: Jack Kearse

Credit: Jack Kearse

Saikawa’s research into lead-contaminated grounds in Atlanta’s Westside community in 2018, led to the Environmental Protection Agency’s investigation into more contaminated properties. The study area has since expanded to more than 1,000 properties. Cleaning up the properties will likely run into millions of dollars.

Saikawa began collecting soil samples around the community after a rock from the area was found to have high levels of lead. Since then, she and community members have been urging residents to test children for lead poisoning.

“I want to make sure that this is not going to happen again because this is so preventable,” Saikawa said. “We can screen the soil so that people know if they are providing safe places for their children.”

Like many other researchers, Saikawa had to adapt to the new normal of the pandemic to continue her research in the Westside. Her partnership with the community had to change from going door-to-door to collect soil samples to creating a soil drop box for residents. She and her team posted a video online that showed people how to collect the soil samples with options to them drop off or ship to her lab.

ExploreDanger in the ground: Lead contaminates westside Atlanta neighborhood

“We were able to collect about 300 soil samples, and that was the biggest number ever collected,” Saikawa says. “It opened up a new way to engage the residents too. I hope that this can be a national movement where residents would be very interested in their soil quality.”

Louisiana state public health officials wrote to Saikawa about replicating her team’s model in New Orleans.

Eri Saikawa, associate professor of Environmental Sciences at Emory University, gathering soil samples for testing in Atlanta’s Westside neighborhood.
Eri Saikawa, associate professor of Environmental Sciences at Emory University, gathering soil samples for testing in Atlanta’s Westside neighborhood.

Credit: Jack Kearse

Credit: Jack Kearse

Saikawa is also part of Resilience and Sustainability Collaboratory, an Emory-based think tank designed to bring together government, business and other organizations to combat climate change.

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“We want to understand what the needs are, from a community perspective, and work with industry to address them,” she said. “Right now we’re mostly fundraising, but we want to implement a more holistic approach to approaching environmental issues. The goal is to have research geared toward the needs of society.”

President Joe Biden is expected to announce a pledge for cutting greenhouse house gas emissions by 50% by 2030. The target would nearly double the nation’s previous commitment and require dramatic changes in power, transportation and other sectors. Over the years, Saikawa has been part of Emory delegations to international climate talks, which have included debate around the 2015 Paris Agreement, which includes the emissions reduction target.

Saikawa’s research into Atlanta’s westside have made her more convinced than ever that environmental and racial justice are deeply intertwined.

“A lot of studies have found majority Black, low-income communities are overburdened with environmental pollution,” she said. “ ... We need to have a more holistic, societal examination to attain environmental justice.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Visit AJC.com for tips on how you can observe Earth Day and how the planet’s health is related to your own.

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