New project aims to map Atlanta’s air pollution divide

Research is part of a new Biden administration effort to monitor dangerous particles

Atlanta’s traffic-clogged interstates are a source of frustration for drivers, but the roadways also produce a hidden threat far more concerning to the health and well-being of the city’s residents: air pollution.

Now, a new federally funded research partnership between a nonprofit, Georgia Tech researchers and local schools will seek to shine a light on the impacts of that pollution, particularly for children in the city’s mostly Black and historically neglected Southside.

The project, titled “Monitoring Air Pollution in Underserved South Atlanta (MAP-USA),” was recently awarded a nearly $500,000 grant by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. It’s one of two air pollution research campaigns in the Atlanta area that received new funding from the agency.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

MAP-USA will focus on tracking air pollutants known as PM2.5, a type of particle pollution roughly 30 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair. Roadways are one of the biggest sources of the particles, which are spewed directly from tailpipes or kicked up into the air by passing vehicles.

Compared to larger particles, PM2.5 are especially dangerous. Their microscopic size allows them to escape the body’s defenses and enter the lungs or even the bloodstream. Tens of thousands of premature deaths in the U.S. each year are likely attributable to PM2.5 exposure and studies have linked the particles to a host of serious diseases, with young people and those with pre-existing conditions most vulnerable.

One of the things in the last three to five years that I’ve become really convinced about is that air pollution is extraordinarily bad for us — a lot worse than we previously thought,” said Dylan Brewer, a Georgia Tech assistant professor of economics involved in the study.

The research is a joint effort between the Center for Sustainable Communities — a local nonprofit that assists partners on sustainability initiatives — Georgia Tech scientists and several Atlanta-area schools themselves.

The MAP-USA funding is part of a larger, $53.4 million push by the Biden administration to improve air pollution monitoring around the country. The money comes from the president’s signature climate and health law passed this year and 2021′s pandemic stimulus bill known as the American Rescue Plan. In all, the funding will support 132 projects in 37 states.

Metro Atlanta has made some progress cleaning up its air over the last two decades, and improved its smog levels enough to comply with federal standards for ozone pollution — though just barely.

But the region’s existing air pollution monitors are largely concentrated on the city’s north side, in neighborhoods that are typically wealthier and less diverse than those south of I-20, the researchers said. That’s despite South Atlanta residents often living, working and attending school closer to major roadways and with industrial activity much more prevalent in the area.

Michael Chang, the deputy director of the Brook Byers Institute for Sustainable Systems at Georgia Tech and a partner on the project, said Southside neighborhoods “are really much more impacted” than other metro neighborhoods.

“And yet, we don’t have the monitoring there to understand the challenges there,” he said.

The researchers hope their project will change that. They plan to install air sensors built by the pollution monitoring firm PurpleAir at 11 public schools below I-20, which will feed data to the company’s website in near real-time. The researchers say it’s possible more monitors will be added at other schools.

Some schools that are participating, like Hapeville Charter Career Academy in Union City and Maynard Holbrook Jackson High in Grant Park, sit just a few hundred feet from major interstates. For the schools closest to the highway, the researchers have tried to find its analog: a nearby school with the same demographic and socioeconomic characteristics located farther from the interstate.

The MAP-USA project’s focus will be on gathering data, but the scientists also plan to explore links between test scores, pollution exposure and other variables. They also hope it will lead to real-world solutions, like giving local officials evidence to fund filtration improvements or changes to housing policies.

“When they’re talking about zoning and planning, this could be used to say, “Whoa, wait a minute. You’re going to put that in proximity to the highway? We can’t do that because our study says X,Y,Z,” said Garry Harris, the project’s leader and the president of the Center for Sustainable Communities.

The project, which is expected to run for three years with the current funding, will also involve faculty and students at participating schools, who will maintain the sensors and help analyze the data.

“When we talk about the advantages of carpooling and transportation being a big source of air pollution, they can literally see that’s the case,” said Andrea Stephens, a science teacher who will be leading the student monitoring at Maynard Jackson High. “So it’s not just me telling them, but they can really look at the data.”

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