September 26, 2018

The Role of The Public and Citizen Science In Ensuring Air Quality

Air quality sensors. Credit: EPA

In a previous post, I touched on how government structures and institutions could act to bridge the gap of poor air quality in logistically difficult environments. Air quality can be referred to as “the condition of the air” with various categorisations from good to very unhealthy. with the World Health Organization (WHO) describing air pollution as “the world’s major environmental health risk” (WHO, 2014) killing 6 times more than malaria and 4 times more than HIV/AIDS (UNICEF, 2016). Clearly this is everyone’s problem and there is a role for the public and citizen science in ensuring air quality.

Here are 5 ways you could be involved.

Public awareness creation

It will be easier for interested individuals, non-profits, scientists, policy makers and regulatory bodies (e.g. the Ghana Environmental Protection Agency-GHEPA) to effectively fight air inequality if the public understands the relationship between air quality and health. In our part of the world, majority of the population is not aware of the fact that air pollution contributes significantly to mortality rate.

Pollution related death is of a major concern in Africa but the public lacks knowledge on this. Advocacy and outreach programs should not only be ad-hoc but a continues approach to educate and sensitise the public on air pollution as well as it’s related health effects such as stroke, cancer and respiratory infections to mention but a few.

The GHEPA can partner with educational institutions, hospitals and non-profits to undertake outreach projects. This could be quarterly every year and rotational if not concurrently in all regions within the country (Ghana).

Open air quality (AQ) data source

We can effectively fight what we know. As we embark on robust advocacy and outreach projects, it will be interesting to integrate this with open data source on AQ. By allowing the public to know the exact concentration of the key species such as nitrogen dioxide (NO2), nitric oxide (NO), carbon monoxide (CO), ozone (O3), sulphur dioxide (SO2), speciated particulates (PM1, PM2.5 and PM10) and the recommended limits will help in fighting air pollution.

Open data source on AQ simply implies empowering the public with relevant data/ information on air quality. The public can therefore make informed decisions based on their understanding of the data and also ask relevant questions. It will also help the regulatory bodies to effectively implement mitigation policies in the long term. For example a simple mobile application can be used to sensitize the public. This will be effective if AQ data is readily available on the open source (Yakokoe; a mobile application developed by Clean Air One Atmosphere-a non-profit in Ghana feeds on open data to meaningfully communicate data on AQ using the USEPA Air Quality Index).

This is just an example of many other approaches which can be used if AQ data is made available to the public. Ironically, in Ghana and many parts of Africa, AQ data is considered sensitive and only found in governmental reports. This makes it very difficult for the public to understand what goes on around them when it comes to air quality.

Emerging cutting-edge low-cost sensors for air quality monitoring (AQM)

Emerging low-cost sensor nodes can be employed to undertake air quality monitoring when properly operated. These emerging environmental sensing technologies have proven to collect air quality data in near real time and at a faster pace.

Low-cost sensors are relatively cheaper to acquire, operate and maintain as compared to the “traditional air quality monitoring equipment” for example the high volume samplers used by the GHEPA. These low-cost sensors also come with many advantages such as an integrated GPRS system for data telemetry, GPS for location services and can be developed to suit operational environment to collect data on air quality species of interest. This is not limited to reactive gases such as nitrogen dioxide (NO2), nitric oxide (NO), carbon monoxide (CO), ozone (O3), sulphur dioxide (SO2) but also particulate matter such as PM1, PM2.5 and PM10 as well as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and meteorological  parameters namely relative humidity and temperature.

Even though this is an emerging technology which comes with challenges especially data quality, low-cost sensors can be co-located with reference equipment to help in data validation and the employment of the protocols on a large scale (dense sensor networks) for AQM in logistically difficult environments such as Ghana. The GHEPA can take advantage of this emerging technology.

Citizen science development

We don’t get to select what we breathe; we all breathe what is in the atmosphere. Fighting air inequality should be all-inclusive. With this simple but tangible understanding, we need to include everyone when developing measures to combat air pollution especially in a region where the subject is less treated.

Technological breakthroughs have shown that one does not necessarily need a skill in a particular field to get involved in such fields. Low-cost sensors are easy to operate; clubs and local representatives in schools and communities can be trained to operate these sensors. By developing a community of scientists with simple but reliable technologies for air quality monitoring, we can inclusively fight air pollution.

People will be more interested in a subject they are involved.

Cultural Change

Our way of life defines us but we need to shift from practices that risks our survival. Most of the households in Ghana (and most parts of Africa) uses biomass as source of energy especially the urban poor and those in rural areas. There have been cases where households ignore the use liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) for cooking/ energy source with the notion that “gas” can easily burn their homes even when the gas cylinders were given for free as a way of social intervention.

When it comes to vehicles, we lack the maintenance culture! We prefer to use our cars until it breaks down before taking them to the mechanic which is a very bad practice. Ironically, the DVLA is not well equipped to fully undertake maintenance and rigorous testing of the vehicles operating in Ghana. Another interesting case to consider is open burning which has become a norm in Ghana. I was once at James Town and it was shocking to know that the garbage gathered at the coast is usually burnt with tyres and this practice has been accepted by the people living along the coastal belt of James Town. Another worse case is the “abattoir” at James Town where tyres are used to dress meat for consumption.

The soot alone generated from these activities is of health concern where the smoke makes others secondary smokers. Do you remember the case of the Judge who died in James Town and why the town has no operational court? Go find out!

 

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