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Wayne County launches three-year effort to build extensive air monitoring network

JustAir CEO Darren Riley (second from left) with members of his team. They'll help Wayne County build and run an extensive new air quality monitoring network.
Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio
JustAir CEO Darren Riley (second from left) with members of his team. They'll help Wayne County build and run an extensive new air quality monitoring network.

Wayne County has started work on an extensive air quality monitoring network that officials hope will help address longstanding health and environmental concerns there.

The three-year plan for the Wayne County Community Air Quality Project calls for installing 100 new stationary air monitors at strategic points throughout the county. The monitors will be attached to lampposts and streetlights collecting critical air pollution data, like particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, and black carbon, according to the county.

Darren Riley is the CEO and co-founder of the company JustAir. They’re working with the county to plan where monitors will go, install them, and track the results.

Riley said the monitors will be fine-tuned to capture what a community’s air really looks like. “We’re going to make sure that we're measuring the right pollutants. For example, in the south end of Dearborn, there are certain pollutants that are contextually different than, say, Hamtramck,” he said.

The county will supplement that with 500 mobile monitors given to vulnerable residents, including children, who can clip them on their backpacks. And the county will attach Bluetooth sensors to some kids’ inhalers, which will capture air quality at the moment they use it for an asthma attack.

Abdul El-Sayed, director of Wayne County’s Health, Human and Veterans Services Department, said that asthma rates in Wayne County, and Detroit in particular, are significantly higher than state and national averages. Data show that disparity has only grown bigger in recent years.

“If we can get data about what air quality looks like every time a child uses their inhaler, we can learn the fingerprint of asthma here in our county,” El-Sayed said. “What that allows us to do is get information ahead of time to folks who are particularly vulnerable.”

Data transparency and empowering residents is another facet of the project. Residents will be able to see air quality data on an online dashboard, and have the option to receive text alerts to be notified when air quality is poor.

Officials hope the network will give them a more detailed and accurate picture of pollution hotspots in Wayne County, which has long been dogged by poor air quality, particularly in parts of Detroit and its Downriver communities. Ozone and particulate matter pollution have improved in recent years, but remain an ongoing problem in some communities. Of the ten Michigan zip codes considered the state’s most polluted, three are in Detroit.

County officials say the information the network provides will help them better protect vulnerable populations, and also hold polluters accountable—something they say has been tricky in the past due to sparse data.

Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) praised county leaders for their approach. She recalled how growing up in heavily-industrial southwest Detroit, she didn’t realize that living with foul odors and polluted air “wasn’t normal.”

“It takes a lot of courage, doing this kind of oversight of corporate polluters in our backyard,” Tlaib said. “It takes courage to take them on. And we're not doing it directly. We're doing it through the public health lens.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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