Philadelphia volunteers measure heat and pollution in a one-day blitz

Meeka Outlaw mounted a temperature sensor on the front passenger side window of her navy blue Nissan Altima just before sunrise on Saturday, then connected an air pollution sensor on the rear passenger side, waiting for it to flash green and let her know. that the mission was ago.

Concerned that the air pollution monitor did not seem to blink, a signal that the GPS was working, she waited a few more minutes before it was finally active. Relieved, Outlaw climbed into the driver’s seat of her, her son Rashid, 12, alongside her, and began driving a carefully charted 13-mile route through South Philadelphia, starting at Marconi Plaza.

Rashid was still sleepy, but he began to wake up and witness his first sunrise in the city.

The two were part of a one-day citywide effort to measure heat and pollution in urban heat islands – areas with little shade and lots of concrete and asphalt can peak 15-20 degrees higher than surrounding areas. They were among 50 volunteers who drove 10 routes in specially equipped cars that covered most of the city as part of a study overseen by the Federal Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Philly was one of 16 communities in the United States and abroad chosen to measure the effects, but only one of the few cities that experience pollution.

“I hope this helps show the city of Philadelphia that they need more green space to help their environment and that not all lots in the city need a house or a building,” said Outlaw, founder of Grays Ferry Residents Organized for Defense and Direction (ROAD). “At Grays Ferry, green spaces are few and far between. Trees and parks are important for gardening, bees and just to have room for peace of mind. “

Each vehicle like Outlaw’s had to traverse the city in three one-hour shifts starting at 6am, 3pm and 7pm, according to organizer Richard Johnson, director of community sciences at the Academy of Sciences Natural from Drexel University. Volunteers expected to cover about 100 square miles, or more than 70 percent of Philadelphia’s 140 square miles.

Johnson said the study will show areas of the city that suffer the most from heat and pollution. Extreme heat kills more people than any other weather event, according to federal authorities, which say climate change is exacerbating the problem. In the latest heatwave that ended Tuesday, at least five deaths were reported in Philadelphia.

Heat can also exacerbate the effects of pollution. Often, the worst areas are found in communities of color or lower income.

“I hope it creates a lot more awareness for the issues because we got the community involved in the process of gathering all the information,” Johnson said. “It will enable the city to make more informed decisions about fair solutions for heat and air quality.”

The study is part of a National Integrated Heat Health Information System (NIHHIS) effort, in partnership with CAPA Strategies. NIHHIS is a NOAA campaign. And CAPA is a private company that receives federal funding to capture and analyze data, as well as create digital tools used for building local resilience plans.

The study has been conducted in other cities since 2017. Other communities participating this summer: Boulder, Colo .; Clark County, Nevada (which includes Las Vegas); Columbia, South Carolina; Columbus, Ohio; Jacksonville, Florida; Knoxville and Nashville, Tennessee; Milwaukee; Montgomery County, Maryland; Omaha, Neb .; Spokane, Washington; Brooklyn, New York; and San Francisco, as well as Freetown, Sierra Leone, and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The air quality sensors recorded PM2.5, or fine particulate matter. PM2.5, defined as concentrations of 2.5 microns or less, is of particular interest. The particles are smaller than the width of a human hair and easily inhaled. They are responsible for most of the health effects of air pollution.

The largest sources of PM2.5 outdoors come from motor vehicle exhausts, construction equipment, power plants, and operations that burn wood, oil or coal. Particles are formed when emissions react in the air. Health effects can result from short or long exposure and can range from aggravation of asthma and other respiratory diseases to premature death in people with chronic heart or lung disease. Children and the elderly are the most vulnerable.

For the data to be meaningful, NOAA instructed that the collection should be conducted on a day that was 90 degrees or warmer, with very little wind and clear skies. Saturday turned out to be near perfect with a maximum forecast of 90 degrees, a light breeze and lots of sunshine.

“The sensors are collecting a measurement like every second,” Johnson said. “They’ll take all of these thousands and thousands of pieces of information and compile it into a detailed air quality and heat map for the city that comes out in the fall.”

In Philadelphia, Johnson worked in partnership with Philadelphia Parks and Recreation, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, Professor Christina Rosan of Temple University, and Russell Zerbo of the Clean Air Council.

As he drove, Outlaw, a St. Francis Cabrini Catholic School teacher, dressed in a “Be a Force of Nature” T-shirt provided for the trek, peered into the rising sun as Rashid flipped through the directions pages. Together, they piloted the car through dozens of streets such as Tasker and Packer, Passyunk and Snyder Avenue, as well as Columbus Boulevard.

“Right or left on the 20th?” Outlaw asked his son, the navigator, one of the many times they had to stop and walk their path.

“I think,” Outlaw said, “that in areas where there is more green space it’s not that hot and it’s not that polluted.”


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