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Teens take to streets with pollution detectors in NYC, elsewhere
30 May 2007

NEW YORK (AP) - The residents of Brooklyn's Sunset Park neighborhood often wonder about the quality of the air as they gaze at the power plants, the waste-transfer station and the traffic-clogged expressway that surround their homes.

The answer to their question could rest with a group of teenagers walking the streets of the neighborhood this summer.

Volunteers from a Hispanic community organization are taking to the streets with handheld pollution detectors to determine the quality of the air. Similar efforts are happening in three other cities around the country, with the goal of developing a clearer picture of the pollution that plagues the nation's urban areas.

"In order for us to really change things, we need to know what's there, on a daily basis," said Frank Torres, director of youth leadership for New York-based UPROSE. "We want to educate to the community, put the power in their hands so they can change their surroundings."

Amid all the recent clean-air initiatives being launched around the country is a sometimes-overlooked fact: The worst pollution exists in poor and minority neighborhoods.

More than 90 percent of Hispanics and 86 percent of blacks live in urban settings, which are typically at higher risk for air pollution, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Hispanics are more than twice as likely than non-Hispanics to live in places that fall short of EPA standards for airborne particle matter.

The handheld device used in the air-monitoring program is made of blue plastic and looks sort of like a toy from the 1980s. The device, which is linked to a GPS, was developed in England and takes a continuous air reading. The data can later be imported to a computer. Different attachments test for different pollutants like nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and particle mass, which is a measurement of how many particles are floating in the air.

The pollutants, which usually come from diesel engines, buses and cars, contribute to the greenhouse effect which leads to global warming, scientists say. Dirty air can cause skin and eye irritation, and asthma, especially in children.

"We don't give a unified health message to people," said Jane Delgado, president of the National Alliance for Hispanic Health, which is leading the project. "We tell people go out and exercise, but for some kids, breathing the air in their communities will contribute to asthma attacks and other problems. We need to know exactly what is going on near our homes."

Pollution data is also being collected by community groups in Detroit, Watsonville, Calif., and Brownsville, Texas.

The Brownsville Community Health Center, a collection of five clinics around the poor border town, is located in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Center head Paula Gomez said spikes in asthma occur when the wind blows from the south, where more than 150 factories that produce electrical devices and plastics are located.

"At night you can sometimes smell the chemicals in the air," Gomez said.

Data collection will continue for about six months, and will be fed to the National Alliance for Hispanic Health, which will use Google maps to create an interactive report. The alliance hopes the data collection will eventually expand to include 20 locations, Delgado said.

"We need good data, close to the ground, collected by people in the communities," she said. "If more people were concerned about emissions, their concerns would be answered by the government. By not keeping good data, it makes it hard to have a whole response."

The project is funded through grants, mostly from the Kellogg Foundation, Delgado said. It costs about $2,500 to equip each of the four cities with the technology, including a GPS, video camera and the pollution detectors.

Wade McGillis, a professor in Columbia University's department of Earth and environmental sciences, said the handheld devices are a good tool to get the community involved, but the data should be used with readings on stationary locations. That would provide a more accurate reading and be less prone to human error.

The group participating in the New York effort is UPROSE, a community organization that already has helped block the construction of a 520-megawatt power plant and is working to create a citywide solid waste management plan.

UPROSE, based in Sunset Park, is currently teaching volunteers how to work the devices, and what the different pollution levels mean. Volunteer Razia Yassin has already done a few test runs.

"You'd think the air is worse near the expressway," she said. "But we found it fluctuated a lot. It wasn't as good or bad as I thought it would be."
 
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