Sac State students research link between air quality and health in underserved neighborhoods
August 03, 2023
Surrounded by freeways and industrial buildings, Sacramento’s four “environmental justice communities” are more likely than other areas to have poor air quality that can pose a risk to their residents.
This summer, Sacramento State Environmental Studies students are fanning out into those neighborhoods and measuring pollutant levels to research the link between air quality and health problems.
Using special monitoring equipment, they are gathering air samples in the North Highlands, North Vineyard, South Sacramento, and west Arden Arcade neighborhoods, which the county of Sacramento has designated as those most impacted by pollutants, toxins and other environmental problems.
The researchers will analyze the resulting data, along with information from community groups and Sacramento County’s public health department, to determine whether poor air quality in those areas can be linked to negative health outcomes.
“I’m hoping that, in the future, Sacramento and the country overall will get to a point where the level of pollution that we are exposed to isn’t based on race or class.” -- Kaarina Thompson, student researcher
The information could provide residents with valuable information and inform future policies and programs to improve quality of life in the affected neighborhoods, said Environmental Studies Professor Wayne Linklater, who is leading the project.
Students will receive a powerful education in the process, said Linklater. The project allows them to learn technical skills, such as how to collect and document air samples, as well as engage in important community work, he noted.
“I think it’s really cool,” said Alexis Officer, an Environmental Studies student who is working on the project this summer. “I’ve never done anything like this before.”
She and other students recently fine-tuned their air-monitoring skills on campus. Inside a lab, Linklater demonstrated a machine about the size of a lunch box that sucks in air through a tube and analyzes it for common pollutants including carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides, and particulate matter. Outside, he trained students to use a much larger machine that measures heavy metals such as mercury, copper, and zinc.
Studies have shown that communities of color in poorer neighborhoods are disproportionately exposed to air pollution, specifically particles emitted by vehicles and factories. Air pollution is linked to changes in human cells that can contribute to health problems including cancer, heart disease, respiratory disease, and neurological disorders, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
The neighborhoods that are the focus of the Sacramento State study are relatively close to busy freeways, transportation hubs with heavy diesel trucks, and other potential pollution risks. They also have fewer air-filtering trees.
Students and members of community groups are collecting air samples in various areas at different times of day, then logging data onto a spreadsheet. Linklater will analyze the data and document how emissions change throughout the day, week, and seasons.
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Monitoring so far has shown “an enormous variation in air quality” based on times of the day and days of the week, said Linklater. Air quality is best at night and on days when fewer workers are commuting, he noted.
The researchers will eventually work with the public health department to gauge whether poor air quality poses a health risk to residents.
The research is funded by $132,000 in grants from the state Department of Justice and the national nonprofit group Second Nature. Local nonprofit agencies participating in the project include Breathe California and United Latinos.
Student researchers Kaarina Thompson and Veronica Mozqueda said their field work has been well received by residents.
“Air pollution is a big issue for people’s health,” said Thompson. “When we explain that we’re from Sac State and what we are doing, people have been very interested.”
The project is different from previous, government-run air-monitoring projects in Sacramento that measured pollution on a broad scale, said Linklater.
“We are measuring air quality on a block-by-block basis,” he said. “Also, we are measuring heavy metals, which has not been done on such a fine scale in the past.”
The researchers will gather data for another six months before preparing a community report, followed by a formal paper on their findings.
Ultimately, the researchers hope their results will empower people in affected communities to fight for better neighborhood conditions and less exposure to pollutants.
“I’m hoping that, in the future, Sacramento and the country overall will get to a point where the level of pollution that we are exposed to isn’t based on race or class,” Thompson said.
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