What’s in the air? Climate activists in Beloit decide to look for themselves
Air monitoring project underway aims to shed light on local asthma levels
A Beloit Memorial High School student installs an air monitor, part of a community project organized by climate change activists to measure contaminants in the local air. (Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Health Professionals for Climate Action)
A volunteer project in Beloit to measure particulates in the air has produced findings that project organizers say might indicate significant and previously unmonitored pollution.
The project, sponsored by the Wisconsin Health Professionals for Climate Action, also offers a model that advocates hope to replicate in other communities around the state — to raise awareness both about immediate pollution hazards and the presence of contaminants in the air that contribute to climate change.
“We don’t even know what risks are in front of us when we’re breathing every day,” says Abby Lois-Novinska, executive director for the climate action organization. “We need to expand programs like these so communities have the ability to respond.”
A college professor who is also a local activist on environmental issues and a former member of the Beloit city council teamed up to launch the project.
A couple of years ago Pablo Toral, a professor of environmental studies at Beloit College, wrote a report for the Beloit city council on local emissions from fossil fuels and other pollutants that contribute to climate change. The report piqued the interest of Brittany Keyes, a city council member at the time.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources monitors ozone in Rock County but hasn’t actively monitored other emissions or particulate matter in the air.
Keyes is a physical therapist, and the lack of hard data about the Beloit air concerned her because of the prevalence of asthma in the community. Between 2019 and 2021, Rock County ranked fifth in Wisconsin for the rate of people hospitalized with asthma, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS).
“If you’re not monitoring you’re not going to be able to act,” Keyes says. “These are my neighbors. These are the kids that I work with, the patients that I work with. It was an environmental justice issue.”
Keyes also serves on the board of Wisconsin Health Professionals for Climate Action, an organization that formed in 2020, and proposed that the organization develop a plan to track air pollution levels in the community.
“Burning fossil fuels is a main cause of air pollution” — a source of stress for people with respiratory ailments — “and also accelerates climate change,” says Novinska-Lois, the executive director. The warming climate also increases the production of ground-level ozone, another irritant for many people who have trouble breathing, she says.
“We’ve been interested in getting a better idea of what is happening by testing air quality,” in order to more clearly see the short-term as well as long-term impacts of pollution, Novinska-Lois adds.
With support from Thriving Earth Exchange, a nonprofit that helps communities, scientists and other groups collaborate to address local environmental issues, the advocacy group decided to start an air monitoring program. The federal Environmental Protection Agency is lending the Beloit volunteers six low-cost air monitors for six months, through the early spring.
The monitoring is still underway, and it will take time to analyze the overall pattern of readings it produces, Toral says. The monitors in use are also less precise than much more expensive equipment can be, so they are more useful in detecting overall trends. But while the monitor readings fluctuate, they’ve produced some results he finds worrisome.
“Consistently Beloit air has more pollution than we expected,” Toral says. “We’ve seen really high levels of particulate matter that can cause all kinds of respiratory issues.”
The monitors show nonpoint pollution, which can come from a variety of different places, he adds. “At this point we can’t identify a specific source.”
DNR officials are aware of the Beloit project and provided some information to the volunteers involved about how to best make use of and interpret the monitor readings.
Craig Czarnecki, a DNR spokesman, says the particulate matter readings produced by the type of sensors the Beloit group is using “are known to be biased high.” The department has calculated a correction factor that users can apply to the readings and produce a reading that DNR officials say is more reliable.
The DNR operates 30 ozone monitoring sites in Wisconsin, including the one in Rock County, as well as 18 fine-particle monitoring sites. Cazarnecki says they have been located around the state following the federal Clean Air Act’s requirements.
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The Beloit project maintains an online page on the website of Thriving Earth Exchange. There is also a page on the website of the manufacturer for the monitors, PurpleAir.com, where the public can see the current monitor readings in real time.
“This is helping to look at longer term trends and to be more proactive” in spreading awareness about climate change and how to combat it, says Keyes. “At the same time, it’s offering our community a tool that on any given day, people can look at these monitors.” They can use that information to make decisions based on current conditions — for example, choosing to exercise indoors rather than outdoors on a day when emissions are especially high.
Keyes and Novinska-Lois say some locations for the project’s six monitors were chosen to represent areas of the community where lower-income residents and people of color live, because they have higher rates of asthma and greater risk for the health impacts of pollution.
Involving local residents in the project was a top priority, Novinska-Lois says. Organizers enlisted an advanced placement science class at Beloit Memorial High School to join the project, collecting data from a monitor installed at the school.
The climate action group is now considering where in the state to establish another monitoring project. The association is also considering whether to buy its own air monitors for the purpose in the coming months.
“We’re trying to focus on areas where folks don’t have data and have high health risks that they’re nervous about,” Novinska-Lois says.
The organization also wants to be sure that local residents are directly engaged with the project as they have been in Beloit. “We’re making sure we have partners on the ground,” she says. “We want to make sure the community is interacting with the data and can use it.”
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