How Clean is the Air in Your Neighborhood? This New Northeastern Project Aims to Find Out

CEE Professor Yang Zhang who leads the interdisciplinary impact engine team, iSUPER, is installing over 100 stationary pollution sensors in Brookline and Chelsea and using a mobile lab to measure air quality block-by-block in Greater Boston municipalities, aiming to identify hyperlocal hotspots and support strategies to reduce air pollution.

This article originally appeared on Northeastern Global News. It was published by Cynthia McCormick Hibbert. Main photo: Northeastern’s Air Quality Mobile Lab on Tuesday, June 20, 2023 is parked outside the Curry Student Center in Boston. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

All neighborhoods are not created equal when it comes to air quality.

Power plants, idling traffic, diesel trucks shipping goods and even the corner restaurant create different pollution signatures for different locations within cities and towns.

This summer, experts from Northeastern University are embarking on a multi-year quest to come up with block-by-block air quality insights in Boston-area municipalities.

The members of the interdisciplinary impact engine, known as iSUPER, will install more than 100 stationary pollution sensors in Brookline and Chelsea, and also explore Greater Boston streets in a van outfitted with monitoring equipment to detect greater variety of pollutants on a sub-neighborhood level.

“Cities and towns have been making air pollution control decisions based on a few limited monitoring stations and regional averages,” says Yang Zhang, a Northeastern professor heading the iSUPER team.

headshot of Yang Zhang

Northeastern professor and distinguished fellow and associate chair for Research, Civil and Environmental Engineering Yang Zhang. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

“Our focus is identifying hyperlocal hotspots, eventually in real time, to support strategies to reduce it or remove it,” she says.

“I just feel we have this opportunity to do so much better in this area we know is critical for public health,” says team member and Northeastern assistant professor Amy Mueller, who is working with municipal officials and community groups to identify air quality concerns.

So far the iSUPER team has overseen the installation of eight of the solar-powered sensors in Brookline and Chelsea in collaboration with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

Candidate locations for the rest of the sensor fleet are being identified through a collaborative process with municipal officials and community partners.

Team members will also hit the road in the Greater Boston area in a white van wrapped in the university logo. The vehicle is equipped with research-grade air quality instruments that can measure ultrafine particles and other types of pollution that stationary sensors cannot detect.

“We plan to drive the vehicle in busy streets and several neighborhoods 10 to 20 times a day to better understand how things vary over time, an important thing for people to know in making decisions about their own activities,” Zhang says.

The van, outfitted by a company run by Northeastern alumnus John Wilbur, arrived June 20, in time to study air quality impacts of the fireworks during the upcoming holiday.

“July 4 is one national holiday I don’t want to miss because firework emissions contribute a lot to fine particulate concentrations (in the air),” Zhang says. “Oftentimes you see peak measurements three to five times higher than average.”

High levels of air pollution most affect children, the elderly and low-income individuals, causing an estimated 7 million premature deaths around the globe each year, according to the World Health Organization.

Air pollution “increases the risk of respiratory infections, heart disease and lung cancer,” WHO says, adding that fine particulate matter that penetrates deep into lung passageways is most closely associated with “excessive premature mortality.”

Mueller says the plan is for the iSUPER project to last at least five years, with the next activity after sensor installation being establishment of a data portal where communities can access and explore air quality measurements from the stationary sensors and mobile lab.

Figuring out how to convert the raw data into insightful information “is a big part of this project,” Mueller says. “Lots of times what we want to know isn’t just the measurement but also what it implies—what was the source?  How frequently does this affect people?  And most importantly—what might we be able to do to change things?”

Read full story at Northeastern Global News

Related Faculty: Yang Zhang, Amy Mueller

Related Departments:Civil & Environmental Engineering