R. Subramanian has been working on air quality issues for about 15 years. He started with a background in mechanical engineering, then added chemistry and atmospheric science while working on a Ph.D. at Carnegie Mellon University.
“There are problems to be solved. And I’m an engineer. And I will learn what I need to solve them.”
Like many scientists, Subramanian — who goes by the name Subu — finds problem solving appealing. And he says air quality research is even more satisfying because it helps people.
Subu and his team at Carnegie Mellon are one year into a three-year project to help people in the Pittsburgh region learn more about pollutants they’re exposed to through the air. It’s funded through the EPA’s Air Pollution Monitoring for Communities program, and it was one of only six projects funded throughout the country.
I met up with Subu in the driveway of a house on the outskirts of the Mon Valley town of Clairton, south of Pittsburgh, just a few miles from the largest coke plant in the country, US Steel’s Clairton Coke Works. Residents have complained for years about the smell, and some have even filed a class action lawsuit against the company because they say they’re being exposed to toxic chemicals through the coke work’s emissions, and that it erodes their property values.
Subu and his research assistant Srini Kumar are visiting this small house, with a creek running behind it, because just a few weeks ago an air quality sensor was strapped to its front porch. And right now the sensor’s not working. It stopped reporting data, so Subu and Kumar are here to troubleshoot.
The homeowner got in touch with researchers through a Clairton community Facebook page, and offered to host the sensor as part of the project. It’s one of about 30 that’s been deployed in the Pittsburgh area since last August. Twenty more will be placed in Clairton and nearby Braddock this summer. Braddock is home to US Steel’s Edgar Thomson works.
“In these communities, housing is cheaper than in other areas. People who are lower income may prefer to live there, but they end up being exposed to potentially higher pollution from certain sources. They end up bearing the environmental cost of these economic activities, disproportionately,” Subu says.
Called a RAMP — Real-time Affordable Multi-pollutant sensor, it looks a little like a fuse box that’s powered by a lap-top style charger. Today, it looks like the RAMP isn’t working because the charger cable just came loose.
“Stupid stuff happens,” Subu says.
The RAMP picks up five gases in the air through holes on its bottom: carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, and ozone. They’re recorded four times a minute. And the data is averaged every 15 minutes. The Allegheny County Health Department’s air monitor in the area averages data about once an hour, so these RAMP monitors might be able to pick up pollution spikes that aren’t currently being detected.
On the side of the device is a little telescope-like tube that’s pointed up to the sky called a nephelometer that detects PM 2.5 — airborne particulate matter.
PM 10 is particulate matter that’s smaller than 10 microns, and Subu says that’s the stuff that gets into your nose. Anything larger than PM 2.5 tends to remain in your respiratory tract, causing throat infections and asthma.
“And then anything smaller than 2.5 microns can actually make it all the way to your lungs, and that is more likely to cause cardiac disease or lung cancer,” Subu says.
As they wait 10 minutes for the RAMP to charge, Subu tells me the next phase of the project is some kind of public interface so residents can see the data being collected.
“At the end of the day, it’s about empowering people with more information,” Subu says. “Empowering them to make choices that would lower their exposure to air pollution.”
Subu hopes Mon Valley residents can start using the data this summer, in whatever way makes sense to them. He stresses as researchers, he and his team aren’t advocating for specific outcomes. But rather, giving people another tool to make their own decisions about how to act. That could mean having more specific examples to make a complaint about industrial pollution to the health department, or to decide if it’s safe enough for kids to play outdoors.
The next phase of the project is working with community members and environmental groups, like the Group Against Smog and Pollution, to put together an advisory board. They’ll recruit volunteers to participate in surveys about interacting with the air quality data.
“This is a way for people to realize that science is something that is useful and actually makes a difference in their lives.”