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A Breath of Fresh Air


January 17, 2018

Gwen Ottinger, PhD. Photo by Jeff Fusco

If you live in a town or city like Philadelphia where industrial facilities are emitting chemicals into the air, there is plenty of reason to wonder: How is this affecting me? Few communities have access to ambient air-monitoring data, and those that do rarely use it because it is complicated and lacks context.

Gwen Ottinger, PhD, associate professor in Drexel’s Department of Politics and Center for Science, Technology and Society, along with colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University, is helping to address this challenge with the Air Watch Bay Area website and reporting app. The digital suite allows three communities in the San Francisco Bay Area, which are located near oil refineries and have access to real-time measurements, to view historical data and annotate it with their own observations.

“The monitoring data were publicly available, but not truly accessible,” says Ottinger. “By putting qualitative and quantitative data in one place, we hope to better understand the impact of refinery emissions on communities and help affected communities hold refineries accountable for their pollution.”

There was already one case of this in 2012, when a big hydrogen sulfide release caused residents of Rodeo, California, to get sick at 12 parts per million, despite the level of 15 ppm designated safe by the Community Warning System. Residents worked with the county government to lower the CWS level to 10 ppm.

The website and app have expanded to include a fourth Bay Area town and are poised to be models for other communities across the country, as real-time air quality monitoring becomes more common.