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As a result of the launch of the Center for Air, Climate and Energy Solutions, the university received this grant in August 2016.

While Pittsburgh no longer turns on its lights at noon to see through the smog, the famous Steel City is still infamous for its air pollution. Many communities suffer from high levels of pollutants detrimental to residents’ health.

Motivated by the need to improve air quality and human health, Carnegie Mellon researchers were awarded a $750K NCER STAR grant by the EPA for monitoring air pollution in Pittsburgh communities. The project seeks to reduce exposure to pollution by placing low-cost sensors around neighborhoods that deliver readings to residents in terms they can understand.

“The idea is for scientists to reach out towards the community and give them the information that they need in context,” said R. Subramanian, principal investigator and research scientist in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

Multiple, low-cost RAMP sensors will provide localized information. The sensors will identify the gradient of air pollution in the city, instead of generalizing pollutant levels for all of Pittsburgh. For example, on the same day the air is clean in Shadyside, pollutant levels could be dangerous in Braddock.

“People who have asthma or want to minimize their exposure to air pollution will know the air quality specific to their area,” said Subramanian. “If levels are high, perhaps they will not send their child to the playground that day.”

The project focuses on environmental justice communities, or communities that unfairly bear the cost of pollution exposure. These are often economically depressed areas located near coking plants or other high-emission facilities where housing prices are inexpensive. In Pittsburgh, these areas include Mon Valley, Braddock, Clairton, and other neighborhoods.

The idea is for scientists to reach out towards the community and give them the information that they need in context.

R. Subramanian, Research Scientist, Mechanical Engineering, Carnegie Mellon University

Pittsburgh community groups Clean Water Action, Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP), and Clean Air Council will partner with CMU’s Center for Atmospheric Particle Studies, CREATE Lab, and Social and Decision Sciences for community involvement and outreach.

The project will create a publicly available Pittsburgh Air Quality Map designed with community input. The map will disseminate local air pollutant concentrations and risks. Subramanian, with co-PIs Albert Presto (Mechanical Engineering), Spyros Pandis (Chemical Engineering), and Julie Downs (Social and Decision Sciences), will look at how people interact with air quality data and pollution maps and what actions they take after knowing their pollution risk.

“At the end of the day, you study air quality because of its effects on people,” said Subramanian. “You can study atmospheric chemistry reactions, you can go to a field and make some measurements, and it is very useful. But I also feel the need to actually communicate with people.”