Breathing in the Bronx: Air Quality in Real Time

What can hyperlocal air quality data over time tell us? Can green buildings make immediate impacts on the air around them? And how can communities be empowered to protect themselves?

The Bronx River Alliance is looking to answer these questions with an innovative air quality monitoring project at their offices in Starlight Park right on the river. They’ve deployed sensors to track particulate matter and carbon dioxide levels all around their innovative new building and are using Temboo’s environmental software to manage everything, from data collection & visualizations, to community engagement.

The Alliance’s work is another interested example of how environmental monitoring can help address environmental issues large and small.

Installing air quality sensors at Bronx River House.

Why Air Quality Matters

Everyone know bad air is bad for your health. But increasingly research and health data is showing how much we’ve underestimated these ill effects and how wide-ranging they are.

The Air in NYC & the Bronx

Thankfully New York City has conducted the largest ongoing air monitoring program of any US city. The New York City Community Air Survey has found a number of interesting and promising data trends in their data from 2008–2018.

Key pollutants including particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, nitrous oxide, and black carbon have all seen reductions in concentration from 29% to 47%. Sulfur dioxide emissions have almost been eliminated, with 95% reductions as building owners were required by the city to switch to cleaner heating oils.

But this progress so far doesn’t mean the problem is solved. And that’s especially true for areas with high traffic volumes and industrial sites, many of which are in the Bronx. The borough’s Mott Haven neighborhood is so afflicted by air quality issues that it’s even been dubbed “Asthma Alley.”

So how can communities and neighborhoods like this be helped?

Enclosures containing particulate matter and carbon dioxide sensors at Bronx River House

Measure and Improve

As they say, you can’t improve what you don’t measure.

So addressing hyperlocal air quality issues requires tracking pollutants with local sensors and knowing how to interpret the data. Fortunately, there are increasing options available for testing air quality.

For interpreting the data, we always recommend using the standardized Air Quality Index to make the information easier to interpret and compare across times and locations. The below gif shows Temboo’s own AQI explainer.

What’s Happening at the Bronx River House

The Bronx River Alliance is investigating air quality issues at their brand new and green building, the Bronx River House.

View of the Bronx River House from the northeast

As you can see above, this building is surrounded by metal grating on all sides that acts as a trellis for plants. They’ve installed particulate matter and carbon dioxide sensors on all four sides of the building and the roof to measure hyperlocal differences in the air and share them with the community.

Bronx River House Plan

The above image provides an overview of the building’s footprint by the river. One thing to note is beyond the parking lot (past the left side of the image) is a multi-lane surface-level highway. The installed sensors will provide insights about how the air quality differs around the building and also over the year as the plants on the grating cycle through the seasons.

Overhead view of an enclosure with one of the air quality sensors inside

The Data So Far

It’s only been two weeks since the sensors were installed, but the initial data is already promising. Already it’s clear that the sides of the building closest to the nearby highway have consistently higher particular matter readings while the east side near the river has the lowest. That information alone is not surprising, but it is notable to see how immediate and consistent the difference is.

About one week after the sensors were installed the Bronx River Alliance saw a very brief but very high spike in particulate matter readings across all the sensors. It occurred around 4:30 in the morning.

What could have caused such a quick spike across all the readings? It wasn’t an idling car by the building—that would have different effects across the different sensors. And a malfunction or calibration issue could be ruled out because it happened to all the devices.

After further investigation the cause was determined. Fire department records showed that a nearby car fire had occurred on the highway at that time. That explained the severity of the readings and the short time frame. It also showed how sensitive the sensors are and how important context is for understadning the data.

What’s Next

The Bronx River Alliance is just getting started, but there are big plans for what’s next. Air quality workshops for community members, displaying live air quality data in their lobby for park visitors and students, and sending air quality alerts to nearby residents are just a few of the ideas being planned so far.

One particularly exciting idea is developing a special version of Temboo’s Daily Breather service for the Bronx River Alliance community. This would send personalized summaries and alerts to anyone signed up to keep them informed about the air quality and what they can do to address it, at both the individual and neighborhood level.

The Daily Breather sends personalized messages that change color depending on the air quality

If you or your organization are interested in learning more or running your own air quality program, please reach out.

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