January 2018, Elaine Trimble sat at a traffic light in London on her way to take her three kids to music lessons. Air quality had hit a dangerous level, and the city turned on a sign at the intersection asking drivers to turn off their engines. Trimble, who knew a thing or two about air pollution, was startled. “I remember thinking, this is all we can do? Ask Londoners to turn off our cars?” Trimble says. “It just wasn’t enough.”
A year later, she learned about a local parents group that was distributing information about air quality and passing out travel surveys to parents at her kids’ schools. The parent group, which included parents from several different schools, tasked school leadership to act on air quality. They were willing to try anything— on-demand school buses, no idling zones for drop offs and pickups, and much to the horror of many parents, tougher parking enforcement.
“If everyday people are up in arms, you know it’s bad,” Trimble says. “This is not about climate change and political debate anymore. This is personal. We’re saying, it’s about me and my kids.”
Air quality inside the big, yellow school buses can contain up to 8.5 times more diesel exhaust than what you might typically breathe in California. The air in the back of the bus was slightly worse than in the front and closing the windows didn’t necessarily help. The soot leaks through floorboards and exhaust swirls so much it seeps into bus interiors. That’s a big deal, since the school transportation industry provides 10 billion student rides annually, the largest form of public transportation in the United States.
The thing that troubles Trimble is that she is knowingly raising her children in a city where she knows precisely how bad the air-quality is and there is now more evidence about how detrimental it can be to the physical development of young children. As a Director for Urban Development at Siemens, Trimble has keen insight on how global cities tackle greenhouse gasses and air pollution. She’d been actively working on the Siemens City Performance Tool projects, helping cities around the globe understand how technology can improve urban infrastructure and quality of life.
To help understand how air pollution personally affects her family and herself on a day-to-day basis, Trimble set out on a science experiment. She attached a device called ‘Flow,’ a personal air pollution sensor made by French company Plume Labs, to the school bag carried by her five-year-old son, who stands just over a foot above the average car’s exhaust pipe. The $179 device helped her map where along her son’s daily commute the air pollution is high - in real-time. Because of this information, she has changed her walking route to a slightly longer one on quieter roads when they have time.
The Plume device painted a grim picture for Trimble. “His very first reading showed that air pollution along his trip was high, and his route passes seven other schools,” she says. The air in London may be among the worst: the European Union has threatened legal action against the UK city because its pollution surpassed limits so often. Just this spring, the city created an ultra-low emissions zone, which charges £12.50 a day fines to drive through central London in all but the cleanest cars and vans. The citizen activism in London underscores a global shift when it comes to the conversation about pollution. It’s a growing concern, not just for regulators and manufacturers, but for cities, businesses and individual people.
A few years ago, it was a topic for environmentalists—now, however, it’s become a mainstream concern.
In america, the conversation is starting and should include replacing old school buses and aggressive adoption of electric vehicles – particularly large fleets – but most importantly a real sense of urgency is needed. With the unraveling of Obama-era policy, people want change— be it millennials, progressive House Democrats, environmentalists, entrepreneurs, the science community, mayors, activists, and policy makers alike. But these are the people you would expect to get involved, when things will start to change is when every parent, regardless of party affiliation, start to realize that maybe their kid’s asthma will improve and they can make the varsity team or even go outside without having to bring an inhaler if the air were a bit cleaner. The big question is one of follow-through—a lack of which will have life or death consequences.
Air quality isn’t the same across a single city or even a single neighborhood. Air pollution can be eight times worse on one end of a block from another. For the elderly, the consequences can be huge. “It’s the equivalent of a lifetime of smoking and a 40% increase in your risk for heart attack and death,” says Aileen Nowlan of the Environmental Defense Fund.
Deb Robarge, 64, a retired school nurse in Indianapolis, knows when pollution is high on hot days because, quite simply, she cannot breathe. Robarge suffers from asthma, a condition she’s managed all her life, and she finds herself using a rescue inhaler when she walks outside. Her asthma has gotten worse as she’s gotten older. “It feels like someone is sitting on your chest,” says Robarge. “And it clogs your thinking a little bit.”
For years, Robarge worked for the Indianapolis School of Deaf, which is located near industrial areas where pollution tends to be worse. She says many kids who are deaf tend to come from low-income families and 50 of the 350 students at the school suffered from asthma, which is often exacerbated by the low-income neighborhoods they live in, which tend to be in industrial zones where land is cheaper to build on. They spent recess inside and keep nebulizers nearby on high pollution days. School officials rushed one child to the emergency room on one such afternoon. Says Robarge: “There’s nothing scarier than not being able to breathe.”
Map of Indianapolis
Bad for Brains, Bad for Business, Bad for Cities
The call to take action should be urgent and unflinching. In the United States, the recent State of Air Report by the American Lung Association makes clear in no uncertain terms that we are losing ground. From 2015-2017, far too many cities across the nation experienced increasing levels of ground-level ozone, or “smog,” and particulate pollution, or “soot,” as compared to 2014-2016. The three years covered in the report proved to be also the hottest years on record globally. Consequently, many cities surpassed historic records for peak pollution days or tied that record during that time. People feel it on the ground: Robarge says high pollution on hot days makes her daily life unbearable and hard to manage without medical intervention.
In the last decade, medical research has concluded that there is a definitive link between poor air quality and health problems like heart attacks, asthma and premature death. We’ve learned that air pollution doesn’t behave the way we might think and can dramatically shift from one end of the block to another, by a factor of 40. It could be worse on a morning run, when you think you’re being healthy, or traveling on a bus, which eases traffic congestion. Enforcement may be weak. Low-income people, whose neighborhoods tend to be boxed in by highways and overpasses and have fewer green spaces, tend to suffer the impacts of poor air quality more acutely. The problem becomes even more daunting given that enforcement is largely non-existent in most cities.
It turns out, pollution is not only bad for your health, it affects how we think, how we feel and how we view the world. Days with higher air pollution are associated with lower happiness and higher depression-related emergency room visits. Air pollution also increases errors in high-stakes decision making and one’s ability to communicate clearly. Researchers at the University of Ottawa and Columbia University found that the stock market performance was poorer on days with higher fine particle air pollution. Another United Kingdom study found similar results in stock markets in Italy, Germany, France, China, Canada and Australia, suggesting that pollution affects trader mood and risk aversion thresholds. Corporate site visits in China by stock analysts suggested that higher air pollution days increased pessimism in their post-visit earnings forecasts.
The list of studies is long: Harvard, Yale, Columbia University, the University of California, Bain & Company, the World Bank. They all show high pollution days impact the workplace negatively: poor job performance, lower productivity, more sick days due to air quality— 650,000 per year in London alone. In China, employers struggle to recruit employees because of the dangerous levels of pollution. Panasonic became the first international company to offer compensation to its expat employees that were sent to China. And in Spain, a survey of consumers showed that people spend $50 million less on days when ozone pollution is 10% worse.
“People spend less money on bad air days and they make worse decisions,” says Aileen Nowlan, senior manager at the Environmental Defense Fund. “Urban leaders realize that it’s bad for health, it’s bad for cities and it’s bad for business.”
Innovation on the Horizon
Cities, and even individuals like Trimble, can tap into more information and tools than ever before to improve the air quality in their cities and communities. The impacts of air pollution are so vast, the need for collaboration so dire, a top down approach by urban leaders needs to be met halfway with a bottom up approach from the private sector and individuals alike. The global threat looms large, and unquestionably, it demands urgent focus.
New York City has made huge strides in cutting back on air pollution levels, by significantly reducing fine particulate matter by 28 percent since 2008. City officials set a goal to have the cleanest air of any large U.S. city by 2030, and they are focusing on prioritizing clean fuels, a transition to electric fleets, green building codes, and a congestion surcharge for New York vehicles that cross into certain parts of New York City. The mayor’s NYC Retrofit Accelerator offers free, personalized advice to building owners, especially those in high-poverty neighborhoods that are still using No. 4 heating oil, another source of harmful pollution.
Los Angeles, one of the worst contenders for highest ozone pollution of all US cities, is aggressively working to clean up its air—cutting pollutants by a quarter— by the 2028 Olympics. Part of that effort requires the ports of L.A. and Long Beach to use zero-emissions equipment. According to the EPA’s 2011 National Air Toxics assessment’s Respiratory Hazard Index, where an index value of 1.00 indicates pollutants are unlikely to increase the risk of adverse health effects, Los Angeles was indexed at 2.83, with some county zip codes coming in as high as 7 or 8.
Mid-Western cities like Columbus, St. Louis and Louisville, which rely on trucking routes and are driving cities, use open source data to bring their particulate levels under control. In Columbus, the city set up online programs and subsidies for people who carpool and “vanpool,” online maps for biking based on rider comfort, and has introduced funding for businesses that encourage employees to take buses. Louisville, meanwhile, rolled out its own regulatory program to reduce harmful contaminants, The Strategic Toxic Air Reduction Program or STAR.
In Indianapolis, where Robage lives, the city has vastly improved its air quality over the last decade, according to data from the EPA. The city witnessed just five unhealthy days in 2015, compared to 54 in 2002— which included so-called “extremely unhealthy” days. And in 2017, the city launched an ambitious plan called Thrive Indianapolis, which outlined a broad initiative to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. The initiative outlines plans to replace traffic signals with LED lighting, improve low-income homes for energy efficiency, shut down coal-fired power plants, build solar farms and focus on improving buildings, which account for 66% of greenhouse gas emissions.
Meeting a Top-Down Approach Halfway
The challenge of improving air quality is huge, and mayors, urban planners and policy decision makers cannot assume the mantle alone. The canvas is vast, the solutions, complicated, and so a top down approach led by state and local governments needs to be buttressed by a range of bottom up initiatives to raise awareness of this issue and produce solutions to solve the problem in myriad ways. Private sector leadership can tackle one aspect of this challenge—technological innovation. Individual citizens can tackle the other—urgent, concentrated action.
Last fall, global technology giant Siemens rolled out an urban air quality tool with advanced AI capabilities, piloting this innovative program in two cities—Nuremberg in Germany and the Guangzhou Knowledge City in China.
The City Air Management (CyAM) solution uses city sensors located at known transport hotspots, similar to the AIRNow sensors in the US. The software produces real time air quality pollution levels for NOx, PM10 and PM 2.5 and forecasts out, up to 5 days in advance, what the air quality around the sensors is likely to be.
The tool will suggest a range of actions a city can take to ensure levels never cross certain thresholds, while tailored to cities’ unique transportation capabilities. One city might want to forecast a temporary ban on diesel vehicles, like Paris or Madrid; another might want to visualize what rerouting traffic around a city can do for breathability. A third might choose to test the impact subsidizing public transportation on days when particulate matter is particularly high, such as a large local sporting event or even the fourth of July.
Some amount of time and training is required for Siemens’ AI neural network to learn and accurately forecast based on past results and historical averages, but it’s one example of a compelling approach from the private sector to solve something as nebulous as air quality. Copenhagen, for instance, takes a two-tier approach to cleaner air: bicycles and big business. The city has more bikes enter the city each day than cars, a habit that cuts carbon emissions and pollution. Dovetailing with this strategy is a more ambitious effort—decarbonization. The Copenhagen Climate Plan has set ambitious plans to make the city the world’s first carbon neutral capital by 2025. The Danish city has the second-best air quality among 23 major European cities, according to a survey by Friends of the Earth Germany. In 2017 43.4% of Denmark’s total electricity consumption came from offshore wind farms.
Cities are the first line of defense. Cities must own the problem, but they cannot own the problem without the data. That’s starting to change. Municipal leaders can now share data through initiatives like the Air Quality Data Commons, an open-source project that lets city officials see trends and tap academic advisors on reducing pollution. Meanwhile, rechargeable air pollution monitors strapped onto the rooftops of city vehicles sound real-time alarms that dot the city and alert officials about problem areas.
Without hard, quantifiable data, cities cannot mandate policy changes to clean up their air. New technology is here, and we must put it to use. Says Nowlan at the Environmental Defense Fund: “People are realizing that air pollution is increasingly killing people, and cities really have the capability to lead change by setting guidelines, sharing data and innovating in this space.”
While cities must take the lead, businesses and individuals also play a role. Every single one of us contributes to pollution—with our cars, our commutes, our deliveries, our ride hailing. What can we do to change our habits?
At the federal level, enforcement of the Clean Air Act must continue to be a priority. Emissions from coal-fired plants that contain mercury wind up in waterways, and mercury has been linked to cognitive problems and birth defects. States can also take action against polluters. The state of Illinois did so recently when it shut down a sterilization facility for emitting cancer-causing ethylene oxide.
Cities, in turn, should take advantage of technology that lets them gather and share data to respond proactively and mitigate the effects of poor air quality. This data could build a case for creating zero-emission zones, the electrification of ports, enforcing safe trucking routes, overhauling older buildings, banning diesel buses and the burning of No. 4 heating oil, and creating municipal campaigns to encourage citizens to carpool and take public transportation.
Private industry, which may have the biggest impact, can tackle pollution in a variety of ways. School bus manufacturers and car makers can aggressively adopt electric vehicles. Employers could encourage telecommuting or taking public transportation. Factories must monitor emissions and adhere to limits, while improving internal processes. Trucking companies can ban idling and ensure drivers travel along designated paths to ports.
Citizens also need to get informed— and take action. The goal is to turn citizens into activists, arming them powerful air quality data to take control of their environment— say, take a different path on a walk to work— and to create a story that can be shared in collective databases, and mapped and shared with city officials and the media. As individuals, we can turn off our cars in the carpool lane. We can take public transit just one day a week. We can take notice of the air we’re breathing and, in the end, we can drive change.
The need of the hour, though, is follow-through.