CPP air quality resources show improvement following wildfires

With the help of the PurpleAir air quality monitor installed on campus, Cal Poly Pomona faculty and students now breathe a sigh of relief as air quality has improved during the month of October after an intense summer of wildfires in California.

Amy Dao snapped this photo of her ash-covered vehicle on the morning of Sep. 9 in the parking lot of the new university housing building. (Courtesy of Amy Dao)

Located in the San Gabriel Mountains, less than 10 miles away from CPP, the Bobcat Fire significantly worsened air quality for inhabitants throughout September, including those living on campus. However, the PurpleAir monitor sensor, among other technological resources still in development, have made it possible to track the gradual betterment of air quality on campus and its surrounding areas in real time.

“It was about three or four weeks ago when the Bobcat Fire started having a very bad impact on the Inland Empire area,” said Kelly Huh, an assistant professor of geography. “I would check the air quality on campus during that time and it was reading about 130 or 140 on the PurpleAir site. That’s so bad… But now there is a 71 average.”

A climate change and environmental advocate, Huh noticed the campus had limited air monitoring technology in place since she began teaching at CPP in 2015 and reached out to the Coalition for Clean Air to initiate this free project by the end 2018.

The PurpleAir air quality monitor now situated on the roof of the College of Letters, Arts, and Social Sciences building was installed by Huh herself. It measures the amount of pollutants and toxins in the air with particle matter as small as 2.5 micrometers.

To fit the device’s compact size, twin sensors found inside form an average number on the air quality index every 10 minutes, with a range of zero, indicating no pollution, to 500+ indicating the most. The data collected by the device is then sent to a network server and uploaded to the PurpleAir website for open access to the public.

The handheld size of the PurpleAir monitor made for a simple installation process on the roof of Building 5. Courtesy of Kelly Huh)

Utilizing the data she has observed and gathered from the monitor, Huh continues to
incorporate Purple Air sensor data into her geography courses as a way of raising student awareness of air quality and the resources available to track it.

“Students have really talked to me when I’ve used this exercise in multiple courses and they
always tell me that they never knew we could monitor air quality every hour or every minute,” said Huh. “I just wanted to say that if students are living in an area with a PurpleAir monitor or on campus, they can check their air especially if they have elders or children at home.”

Assistant professor of anthropology and faculty in residence Amy Dao, described her
experience with tainted air quality living on campus during the peak of the Bobcat Fire.

“I downloaded the PurpleAir app and several other apps because I started actually to notice when the air started getting really bad,” Dao recalled. “I used the weather app on my iPhone before and I thought, ‘What is going on? Why does it say the air quality is good but when I look outside the sky is orange?’ And so that’s when I said there was definitely something wrong with where this is being measured or how it’s being measured.”

According to the World Health Organization, the dangers of dirty air are very real. Causing health complications such as stroke, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and acute respiratory infections, there is an estimated count of 4.2 million premature deaths globally due to ambient air pollution.

Now at 92% containment, the Bobcat Fire has decreased in both size and toxicity, leaving air quality near campus at an average of approximately 70 AQI as of Oct. 17, according to PurpleAir.

With only one PurpleAir monitor on campus, additional efforts to discover a more detailed view of air contaminants surrounding the university have been made by faculty in the civil engineering department.

Xinkai Wu, assistant professor of civil engineering, is part of a combined team of CLR Analytics, Caltrans and CPP experts working on the Environmental Impact Evaluation & Open Data Systems Development portion of the Connected Corridor Pilot Project. The project is intended to optimize the usage of urban roads, minimize traffic and create a safe and harmonious relationship between different forms of transportation in California.

Although mainly aimed at acquiring traffic data before and after the COVID-19 stay-at-home order, the Intelligent Air Quality box utilized in the project is a tool containing state-of-the-art sensors that can detect multiple kinds of air pollutants as opposed to only capturing size and volume of particle matter.

“The box has really good sensors inside because each pollutant is different and needs its own type of sensor; they are all different,” said Wu. “We’ve also mounted our boxes on CCTV ports so that they could run 24/7 and our data provide a second by second analysis. It updates every two minutes on the website.”

This Intelligent Air Quality box chart reveals the increased amount of impurities and particle matter in the air on the I-210 freeway near the Bobcat fire during the month of September. (Courtesy of Xinkai Wu)

Established in 2018, two of the three existing devices are found in the Monrovia and Pasadena zones of the I-210 freeway. The collected data are immediately uploaded to a designated website and delivers “high-resolution” results.

According to Wu, information on the already installed Intelligent Air Quality devices read that there were major increases in particle matter, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide around the Monrovia location throughout the month of September.

“Each device can cover a large enough area on I-210. I do believe that students from Cal Poly can use the two devices as references to check the air quality on campus even if it is a little bit far,” said Wu.

Attempting to insert farther-reaching objectives than traffic emissions into the project, Wu expressed his hope for future implementation of these devices in streets and freeways adjacent to campus in order to continue monitoring air quality changes.

“Because of COVID-19, the budget for this has become very difficult, but I do hope we can get one of these devices on campus as a testing site soon. It would be a highlight of our own research on our own campus,” said Wu.

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