Air Quality & Health: Communicating New Research Findings

By Becca Fink

Many of us have seen Air Quality Index (AQI) maps informing us whether the air quality today is “Good” or “Hazardous.” These charts indicate the level of health concern for the day, as decided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). What do we know about these standards? Do standards change when new research is published? What effects can air quality have on our health?

The AQI is a system that measures a set of pollutants, determined by the EPA, and the effect those pollutants can have on human health based on current levels. The AQI was developed as a user-friendly, easy to understand indicator of complicated information. However, new research indicates that even lower amounts of pollutants than those identified by the EPA can have negative consequences on our health and lives. How can researchers take this information and share it with the general public in an effort to improve people’s wellbeing?

A recent study suggests that environmental factors, such as a lack of green space and higher levels of particulate matter air pollution, can be a cause of chronic absenteeism (students who miss ten percent or more of school days for any reason). Particulate matter is a mixture of tiny particles in the air that, when inhaled, can cause serious health effects, specifically affecting the heart and lungs. The authors of the study note that “chronic absenteeism can affect success later in life, including impacts on education attainment, employment opportunities, incarceration risk, health status, and financial stability.” What this study makes clear is that it can take long-term studies to better understand the impact of air quality on our health and lives and that we must be willing to adjust our standards as new findings become available.

Health effects can be measured by examining the economic loss due to worse performance by employees. Harvard Business Review published a study in 2016 that found higher levels of air pollution can cause office workers to be less productive. The study “found a surprisingly robust relationship between daily air pollution levels and worker productivity…workers are 5%–6% more productive when air pollution levels are rated as good by the Environmental Protection Agency versus when they are rated as unhealthy.” It is likely this impact on economic productivity will make clear the impact of air quality on people’s health and be of interest to business owners. The authors note it could be compelling for policymakers as well, “All of this might really matter for the economy as a whole. For policy makers, the evidence changes the cost-benefit analysis of environmental regulation and suggests that prioritizing industrial expansion over environmental protection may actually undermine economic growth.”

These are just a select few of the many studies that have been published in the last five years that discuss air pollution. While there has been much new research linking air pollution to negative health consequences, it can still be difficult to communicate this to people who are impacted. This is of high interest to the Urban Resiliency Program, as we are always seeking ways to take complicated science and make it relevant and actionable. How can scientists effectively communicate the importance of setting higher air quality standards? How can they prove to individuals the effects air quality can have on their health, community, productivity, and future? The research is there, and the benefits of cleaner air are evident. Now, it is a matter of making these findings available and accessible to a larger audience.

A recent article published in Air Quality, Atmosphere, & Health focused on this issue. The article notes that “interventions will be implemented only if their relevance and impact can be conveyed clearly and convincingly to those empowered to set policy, the people responsible for implementation, and those likely to be affected by the intervention.”

While many countries have taken steps to introduce laws and bills that set higher standards for air quality, there is still much more that needs to be done. Local projects, like Operation Healthy Air, help to show the importance of involving the community in making large-scale change. When citizens get involved in the science, they see firsthand the value of making changes at home that can have larger impacts. These changes could be as simple as planting trees, replacing air filters, gardening, getting involved in local government, recycling, and much more.

As research is being conducted to learn more about air quality and its effects on human health, researchers need to take more time to communicate this clearly to larger audiences. Change to policy and practice occur when people understand and care about research findings. When individuals begin to see the relevance of research and understand that there are changes to be made, they may be more compelled to advocate for those changes. There are many steps in the chain from scientist to policymakers. We believe that an informed public can help at both ends, to create relevant research and to help communicate the results that shape our policies and make our communities more resilient and healthy.

The communications issue is not unique to this subject. Effectively communicating the importance of health and scientific research is a difficult task that requires reaching the right audience in the right way. At the Urban Resiliency Program, we are thankful for our team of dedicated citizen scientists who are open to learning more about scientific research, taking those learning outcomes, and applying them to their lives.

Incorporating Operation Healthy Air into a Course Curriculum: A Case Example for Earth Sciences

By Prof. Karen McReynolds

Getting students interested and keeping them interested in what science is and the process of science can be a real challenge. Citizen science projects, where students collect or process real data offer a great way to do that. Professor Karen McReynolds of Hope International University works with lower division, non-science-major college students built a curriculum to enable her students to produce meaningful, useful data supporting Operation Healthy Air (OHA) as a class project. As a result, some of the best maps for OHA were produced and students participated in a real-world science experience relevant to the communities where they live.

 

Until recently, students in Prof. McReynolds class would complete a research project and make a poster for their Earth Science project, but the project results would remain remote from the real world (at least in their eyes); “it’s just another academic exercise.” Working with OHA and interpreting neighborhood green, blue, and gray space from above via the Habitat Network tool offered them a much more tangible connection to real life. Creating a project for students to participate in OHA gave a way to very concretely anchor their Earth Science coursework to their experience as residents of the Los Angeles area.

 

Prof. McReynolds first initiation to Earthwatch’s citizen science programs was having students in her biology courses collect data on trees for Operation Resilient Trees. Having seen successful adoption and interest by her students in citizen science, Prof. McReynolds was ready to try OHA, which offered a good fit for Earth Science students with its focus on discovering how differences in the environment affect local air quality and temperature.

 

Project Curriculum

OHA had already assembled a significant amount of temperature and ozone data from various locations in the Inland Empire of Southern California by early fall of 2017. Mapping of local habitats around each sensor to determine how different environments (i.e., habitats) influence local air quality was still needed. OHA adopted the Habitat Network citizen science tool (www.yardmap.org) developed by Cornell Lab of Ornithology and The Nature Conservancy. In order to offer students a large enough assignment to merit its label as a project (not simply another class assignment), Prof. McReynolds developed a project description that included three main components:

 

  1. Introduction
  2. Map Creation: two practice and three based on actual OHA sensor locations
  3. Conclusion

 

Introduction

The introduction set the stage for the students and was the research component of the class project. Students were asked: “What is the value of Operation Healthy Air? You are not completing an academic exercise with this project – you are joining a regional effort to evaluate the effects of green space on temperature and air quality, which will be of increasing importance with every passing year. Why is this important?” Further instructions included length, formatting and resource guidelines, including a requirement for students to use three or more of the sources provided by Director of Research Initiatives, Dr. Mark Chandler, in addition to at least one other peer-reviewed source they found on their own.

 

Map Creation

The heart of the project was the creation of five maps. Given that a universal concern within the citizen science world seems to be “but is the quality of the work good enough?” Prof. McReynolds developed a progressive series of practice maps intended to prepare them to do their highest quality work on the “real” maps surrounding the OHA sensors.

 

The first practice map was done by hand not electronically for several reasons. Many students were unfamiliar with basic spatial mapping skills, familiarity with different habitat types (e.g. types of vegetation, asphalt vs concrete pavement, etc.), sense of scale and a hand drawn map created a powerful way to build these skills before starting the online mapping. Furthermore, the Habitat Network mapping tool (www.yardmap.org) does not permit the same area to be mapped repeatedly by different people. The first map was the only map that all the students did of the same location, which permitted the instructor to compare, check for uniform quality, and catch common errors.

 

For practice map 1, each student was given graph paper and the same color photo taken from Google Maps via the Habitat Network to use as a base for their hand-drawn paper map. The area selected was a location on campus that included a combination of trees, buildings, parking lot, street, and landscaping that was similar to what students would be mapping on their OHA maps. It was also the same size (about 27,000 square feet) as the areas they would be mapping for OHA. The assignment was to make a hand-drawn map on the graph paper of the campus location. Four corners of a square were established and the class walked the perimeter as a group to make sure the boundary was clear.

 

After each student completed the paper map of an area on campus that was easy to “ground truth” to confirm, Practice Map 2 was assigned. By now, students needed to begin getting acquainted with the Habitat Network mapping tool OHA uses to construct its maps. The instructor set up accounts in Habitat Network and assigned one to each student. This gave the instructor access to their accounts for evaluating their maps. This time the student could choose an area they wanted to map. It had to be the same size as their OHA maps would be, and it had to be in a public place such as a park where they could go and ground truth their map after completion.

 

Once they decided where they wanted their map to be, they were instructed to use OHA’s Cheatsheet to help them make their map of the area. When complete, they needed to take a screenshot photo of their Habitat Network map and print it out in color as an 8 x 10-inch photo, then visit the site with the photo and check their map for accuracy. They also had to answer a series of questions while they were at the site and submit answers to questions along with their map photo and notes taken at the site. Maps were graded by the instructor using the mapping rubric created by OHA, with a portion of the grade coming from answers to the questions they submitted.

 

Conclusion

After completing the two practice maps, students were ready to move on to the actual citizen science work—mapping sites surrounding OHA temperature and ozone sensors. Each student was assigned coordinates (supplied by OHA) for three different locations. When their three maps were complete, the final part of the project involved writing a conclusion. This required analysis of the specific activities they completed and a review of the OHA project as a whole.

 

Student Feedback

 

Feedback from students was overall very positive and included appreciating the value of the introduction at the start of the project about the real science and applied nature of the project, and, the general usefulness of completing practice maps before embarking on the maps that were linked to sensor locations. Even within the three maps that were linked to sensors (the “real” maps), the students noticed improvement with each map completed. There were also favorable comments on the OHA support available, reflected both by Dr. Chandler’s visit to the classroom and the reference sheets and resources that were present for student use.

 

The most consistent negative comments received from students in their conclusions were that the first practice map did not seem relevant to the project as a whole. They did not see the value in completing a hand-drawn map when the requirements from OHA were all electronic maps completed through yardmap.org. It appears that the students benefitted a lot for the hand drawn maps yet did not appreciate why or how they improved their online mapping skills as a result. Students also drafted a list of comments from students on to help improve Habitat Network: students perceived the website to be slow and awkward to work with, and some of the images had poor quality.

 

Student Comments

“I think it would be a cool idea to have the class participate together on a project, a more hands-on one that allows them to work together and make a difference in their physical community. “

 

“This project will go towards mapping out locations in order to test for air. I am glad that a project I have completed will help the environment instead of just serve as a grade for school. For this Earth Science course I do believe this project is necessary in learning what plays a factor in air pollution and it also gives the students of this course a way to help the Earth that they have been learning about all semester. Completing this project has taught me that air quality has a lot more factors going into than just smog. I learned that concrete, asphalt, trees, grass, roofing material and many more aspects all play a key role in the air quality of any area. This project has also taught me that habitat mapping can be very time consuming and tedious. But in the end it feels great to complete them because you know that you are making a positive contribution to Earth. Completing this project has helped me to notice how much I love feeling like I am making a positive contribution. This project’s purpose is much more important than any one human being and I got to make a contribution to that. That is a great feeling.”

 

Project Feedback and Future

Although they required significantly more work from the students, creating the practice maps seemed very valuable to Prof. McReynolds. Most importantly, Dr. Chandler of OHA reported that the student’s maps were the most accurate and detailed of the various maps OHA received from volunteers.

 

The hand-drawn practice map 1 showed them clearly just how large the area each map covered was and let them begin to get a sense of what a tree looked like from above compared to what it looked like standing next to it. The second practice map got them working with the Habitat Network and allowed them to work through errors or oddities before they began analyzing actual OHA sensor locations. It also gave them further experience in comparing trees from above with what is actually present at the location. Prof. McReynolds think keeping the hand-drawn map is valuable. Physically walking the perimeter of a square is a helpful learning experience, helping to understand how big that square is and seeing the difference between asphalt and concrete. Because the final maps turned out so well, it seems there may be some hidden success in drawing the original map. However, a change to make for next time would be to spell out more clearly to the students what the purpose of the first practice map is at the beginning.

 

The new Environmental Science course at Hope that begins in spring semester 2018 will be taking this project even further, with placement of sensors at various locations around Fullerton and then mapping the locations linked to those particular sensors. They are looking forward to contributing further to the data that OHA is collecting and the larger picture of determining how the Los Angeles area will fare as temperatures continue to rise.

 

Based on feedback from the students and how the instructor saw progress, a few changes will be implemented:

  • Begin earlier in the semester so students can make more maps
  • Let students work with partners—working on maps together would help decrease the chance for mistakes
  • Do a single map together in class as demonstration would be helpful
  • Be more clear about why hand-drawn maps enable skills acquisition relevant to online mapping

 

One improvement in spring of 2018 will be to explore more about the air temperature and quality data collected at the sites they mapped. The addition of that component, which would permit correlation of temperatures and tree cover, could ratchet student interest up another notch. With non-majors, this is always a good thing.

 

We are looking forward to exploring more about how to use authentic science in the classroom to create more science literature students. Please send us any thoughts or feedback on this blog!