In Imperial County, CA where particulate pollution often exceeds state standards for more than six months at a time, and children have among the highest rates of asthma-related emergency room visits and hospitalizations in the state, the availability of real-time, local air quality information can be a life or death issue.
In response, Tracking California worked with partners (Comite Civico del Valle, University of Washington, and others) and local residents to establish a community air monitoring network of 40 particulate matter (PM) monitors. The real-time air monitoring data are now available online and are being used by schools, residents, and agencies to understand and reduce exposures to air pollution. Lessons from this project are described in the Guidebook for Developing a Community Air Monitoring Network: Steps, Lessons, and Recommendations from the Imperial County Community Air Monitoring Project.
Imperial County, located in the southeast corner of California, is a primarily Latino and Spanish-speaking county, with some of the highest rates of unemployment and poverty in the nation. Heavy agricultural and industrial activity, the declining Salton Sea, vehicle pollution due to goods transport and border crossings, and proximity to the industrial areas of Mexicali across the border in Mexico have made air quality a priority issue in the community.
For decades, Imperial County has exceeded the California standard for particulate matter of 10 micrometers or less (PM10) for time periods lasting over six months. Historically, it far surpasses all other California counties as having the highest rate of both emergency visits and hospitalizations for asthma among school-age children. PM10 is known to be related to increased respiratory disease, decreased lung function, asthma attacks in susceptible individuals, and premature mortality. Despite efforts by state and local government agencies and communities, air pollution levels and asthma rates remain unacceptably high.
Traditional regulatory air quality monitoring networks are limited in their ability to provide air pollution information at the community level. With only five regulatory PM monitors in the county, many residents did not have data about their community's air quality conditions. Residents expressed a need for locally-relevant air quality data that could be used to identify air pollution trends and hotspots within the county, as well as provide real-time information about when to take action to reduce air pollution exposure.
In response, the Imperial County Community Air Monitoring Project was initiated in 2013 by Tracking California in collaboration with local organization Comite Civico del Valle, the University of Washington, and others with funding from the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences. Bringing together scientists, community advocates, and local residents, this 5-year project aimed to establish a community air monitoring network (CAMN) to collect air quality data for research while providing information that would be immediately and directly useful to residents.
The research aim of the project was to assess whether real-time and modeled air quality levels from a CAMN could assist communities in identifying "hot spot" areas in Imperial County and increase their capacity to develop and implement effective local public health actions. To that end, the project's objectives were to:
This project used a participatory process to establish a community air monitoring network that collects air quality data that are useful and accessible to communities and researchers alike. A key aspect of this project was the integration of community and scientific priorities in the development of the network.
A Community Steering Committee (CSC) of local advocates and concerned residents was formed to ensure that project activities were informed by local knowledge and experience, aligned with community priorities, and were conducted in a community-driven manner. The role of the CSC was to provide guidance and decision-making on project activities, including the identification of priority communities in which to deploy air monitors. Residents from these communities were then recruited and trained to participate in a process to identify, gather data on, and prioritize potential monitoring sites. After deploying a first set of 20 monitors, the project team conducted spatial analysis to determine where to deploy the last 20 monitors. With the network completed, data are now publicly available on a community website (IVAN AIR). More details are available in published articles about the overall study, process to calibrate and validate the monitors, and the process to select monitor locations.
Other product activities included outreach to schools, a youth environmental internship program, research analyses to develop spatially modeled maps of PM throughout the county, and sharing lessons learned through presentations, workshops, and a guidebook on developing a community air monitoring network.
A major innovation of our project that distinguishes it from other networks of monitors is that the community was involved in each stage of design and implementation of the air quality monitoring network. Not only were community members participants in the scientific research process, they also participated in the design of the research and in key decisions about the direction of the project. Engaging community in research can improve the quality of the findings and interest in a study. This approach to research can also address inequities in air pollution exposures and reduce historic mistrust between disadvantaged communities and researchers. Various aspects of this project underscored both the feasibility and the importance of community engagement.
This project developed out of a long-term relationship between Tracking California and the local community-based advocacy group Comite Civico del Valle (CCV). CCV served as the local coordinating partner for all project activities, and facilitated the involvement of other community partners. CCV staff are involved as equal partners with Tracking California in all project decision-making, and CCV staff led installation and maintenance of the monitors. CCV Executive Director Luis Olmedo was involved with Tracking California in the development of the original grant proposal that was funded under this project, and he served as a Co-Investigator on the grant.
Community Steering Committee (CSC)
With the leadership and coordination of CCV, the CSC guided each stage of the project. The CSC included residents from different regions of Imperial County, and included youth members and representatives of various community organization. The diversity of the CSC ensured that different community voices are represented in the key project decisions. See a short video featuring one of our youth CSC members speaking about her experience with the project:
Broader Community Network
A wider network of community residents was involved in the project, including volunteers who proposed and assisted with data gathering for possible sites for the air monitors, individuals and organizations serving as hosts for the monitors, and community members involved in using the research data to plan action strategies.
Community input was key in deciding the locations of the first 20 monitors. In the site selection process:
Similarly, in developing the data display, there was community input at every level:
Transparent and Equitable Decision-making
To reach the promise of real community-engaged research, the project was guided by shared decision-making and equitable partnerships in a collaborative and transparent process. The involvement of all the project partners in decision-making was facilitated through regular meetings by phone, webinar, and in-person, at times convenient to community partners, with the decision-making documented for transparency.
These principles of transparency and equity also applied to the distribution of the grant funds. The intent of community engagement must be supported with adequate financial support for community activities and capacity-building activities. Effort was made throughout the project to ensure that community partners were adequately funded and that project resources were shared fairly across partners.
This project builds on and supports citizen science. In research projects, it is common for community members to be excluded from participating in scientific decisions because they may not have the scientific background to make meaningful choices. Our solution whenever possible was to provide the necessary training about the scientific concepts so that there was a common baseline of understanding to allow community members to be more meaningfully involved in conducting the science.
Promoting citizen science and community engagement:
This project provided training to community members to establish a common knowledge base in air pollution, air monitoring science, interpretation of air monitoring data, using data for action planning, and specific topics of interest to local residents such as coccidioidomycosis (valley fever).
Substantial engagement of and leadership by community members at every stage of planning and implementation of this project have:
The project has resulted in numerous impacts, including:
With the growing availability of low-cost air sensors, more communities are conducting their own monitoring to better understand and address air quality concerns at the local level. Tracking California (formerly the California Environmental Health Tracking Program) and our partners Comite Civico del Valle and University of Washington created the Guidebook for Developing a Community Air Monitoring Network: Steps, Lessons, and Recommendations from the Imperial County Community Air Monitoring Project to support community based organizations and their partners in planning and implementing their own community air monitoring networks. The guidebook describes the steps, lessons learned, and recommendations from The Imperial County Community Air Monitoring Project (Imperial Air Project).
The foundation of the Imperial Air Project model is the combination of community ownership with scientific rigor. This model is flexible and can be tailored to fit the needs of your community.
Use this guidebook to help you:
We hope that you are able to plan and implement community air monitoring networks that are inclusive, transparent, and sustainable using this guidebook. Some questions to consider:
For more information or to find out how Tracking California can help you use this resource, please contact us.
Below are select publications related to the project.
This project featured a unique collaboration between three primary organizations: Tracking California, Comite Civico del Valle (CCV), and the University of Washington (UW). Each partner had essential and specialized roles in the project based on their particular organization's capacities. CCV led community and stakeholder recruitment and communications activities, as well as the implementation of outreach, education, and public health action strategies. With training and hands-on experience provided by this project, CCV also took on most of the responsibilities related to monitor assembly, deployment, and maintenance. UW led the air monitoring technology activities, including designing and assembling the monitors, assessing and ensuring data quality, and conducting research analyses. Tracking California served as the main project coordinator, overseeing all project activities and also taking the lead in designing and conducting the community engagement, training, and citizen science activities, as well as leading the data communication, interpretation, and display activities. Finally, technical consultants from University of California Los Angeles and George Washington University provided valuable guidance on CAMN design, implementation, and data analysis.
Community Steering Committee (CSC)
The CSC consisted on local advocates and concerned residents, including youth. The CSC played an essential role in the project, providing guidance and decision-making on project activities throughout. Due to the length of the project, CSC membership evolved over time as some individuals moved from the area.
Technical Advisory Group (TAG)
The TAG consisted of representatives from local, state,and federal regulatory agencies and universities. The TAG provided guidance and feedback on technical activities.
This project was funded by the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) Research to Action program (R01ES022722).