UW awarded EPA Air Pollution Monitoring for Communities Grant

Yakama youth engaged in the EnviroMentors program talk to their congressman (photo from C. Karr)

A new grant from the EPA’s Air Pollution Monitoring for Communities program will enable University of Washington air pollution researchers to partner with the Yakima Valley’s Heritage University faculty whose undergraduates represent the community’s population of predominately Yakama Nation and Latino immigrants. Working with local students, the partners aim to address key scientific questions pertaining to woodsmoke exposures, health effects, and interventions in Yakima. The group will use both sophisticated research instruments as well as next-generation low-cost sensors for use in these collaborative studies, and explore effective strategies for data dissemination and communication to the broader community. A goal of the project is to engage Heritage students to be community problem-solvers, using air quality monitoring information to address issues of woodsmoke air pollution that are responsive to multi-generational and multi-cultural perspectives and concerns.

The project is expected to produce a new air pollution curriculum adaptable for use in other mentored student research settings incorporating use of next-generation sensors. The investigators expect 90 high school students and 12 undergraduates to benefit from the new curriculum over the course of the study.

The principal investigator of the project is UW Professor, Catherine Karr.  Collaborators on the study include Jessica Black from Heritage University, and UW faculty Tim Larson, Edmund Seto, Chris Simpson, and Michael Yost.

The Seto Lab will be responsible for developing the next-generation sensor platform for monitoring woodsmoke for the project.

UW’s grant is one of six awarded in US EPA’s Air Pollution Monitoring for Communities program.  

My NIEHS Webinar: Environmental Sensors, Citizen Science, and Quantified Self

On April 5, I gave a webinar “Sensor Technologies for Improving Environmental Health: Juxtaposing the Citizen Science and Quantified Self Movements”.  Thanks to all who attended, and especially to those who provided questions/feedback on my group’s work.  Here’s the abstract:

In recent years, numerous sensor technologies have been developed that offer the ability to collect detailed data on environmental conditions and their impact on human health. These technologies will likely change how communities and individuals access environmental health information, and the amount of data that are available for improved decision-making.

An example of the potential impact of emerging sensor technology can be seen through the development of low-cost direct-reading air pollution monitors many of which are now commercially available.  While researchers continue to conduct studies to answer the fundamental question of “how well do these new devices perform?,” perhaps the more intriguing question is “if useful air pollution data could be obtained from a device that many people could afford, how would this change our understanding of air pollution-related health?”

This webinar will discuss multiple answers to this question, including how community groups, Citizen Science, epidemiologic researchers and individuals may benefit from these new sensors.

One answer to the above question is that community-based environmental groups may have better access to monitoring technologies to document environmental injustices. In some respects, this is not entirely new, as community groups have for many years documented their local knowledge of air pollution levels in much more detail than what was possible through government monitoring efforts. The difference now, is that monitors are more readily available for these groups to collect their own objective measurements. Because of the low cost of each monitor, it is not implausible to imagine entire communities blanketed with a high density of air pollution sensors. And, in fact, NIEHS-funded research is demonstrating that such community-engaged monitoring networks are possible.

Slightly different from the community-initiated and led research described above, new air pollution technologies are enabling a new form of environmental research within our communities, called Citizen Science. While there are different models for conducting Citizen Science, the more intriguing examples are those that are organized over the Internet, involve many individuals who work together to crowdsource data, and result in massive amounts of data that are shared openly. In some cases, technology-savvy Citizen Science leaders are developing and sharing their designs for new monitors, providing proof of concept for how measurements can be made with low-cost sensors.

Another possible answer to the above question is that an increasing number of environmental epidemiology studies may use sensors to conduct personal exposure assessments. Sensors are not only getting cheaper, but also battery-powered and are getting smaller in size, making them increasingly practical for use in a variety of cohort studies. An exciting example of NIH support for this is the new Pediatric Research Using Integrated Sensor Monitoring Systems (PRISMS) program, within which various research groups are developing new wearable sensors that can measure environmental exposures that can be related to health symptoms for future children’s asthma studies. An exciting aspect of the PRISMS program is the recognition that future sensors will likely need to be network-enabled, which would provide more immediate data from research subjects, as well as also enable more immediate feedback to research subjects.

While NIH programs like PRISMS are fostering future sensor technologies for epidemiologic research, the private sector is also commercializing air pollution monitors for the consumer health and wellness market. Smart technologies (e.g., smartphone apps, smart watches, fitness trackers, GPS loggers, etc.) used to be primarily marketed to the Quantified Self movement – individuals who use devices and data to track and optimize various aspects of their life – air pollution monitors being just one of latest devices that such an individual may want to use. But, there is a large group of individuals who have pre-existing health conditions and may be susceptible to air pollution exposures, which may be interested in understanding their air pollution exposures by either having a household or wearable monitor. While these individuals may be the greatest market for these new air pollution monitors, it remains unclear how people will respond to personalized air pollution exposure data (e.g., what are the best ways to communicate individual-based air pollution exposures and risks?), or whether people have practical ways to manage their exposures.

In summary, the recent developments in low-cost air pollution monitoring devices illustrate various opportunities for improving environmental health through sensor technologies. The benefits to traditional community-based and epidemiologic research studies are somewhat clear, with new monitoring devices potentially providing data for more persons, places, and times than previously possible. Less clear, but no less exciting because of the reach and numbers of people potentially involved, are the novel ways in which new air pollution monitors are being adopted into Citizen Science and consumer health and wellness applications.

More, and an eventual link to Youtube can be found here:

New Study to Develop Environmental Exposure Monitoring for Pediatric Asthma

My group at UW was awarded a $2M grant to work with the National Institutes of Health on a new program called Pediatric Research using Integrated Sensor Monitoring Systems (PRISMS).  The goal of this program is the “development of wearable and non-wearable sensors that can monitor pediatric environmental exposures, physiological signals, activity, and/or behavior in a natural environment to gain new insights into environmental determinants of asthma.”

This new grant will bring together researchers at UW in the Environmental Health Sciences, Pediatrics, and Engineering to develop a new environmental exposure monitoring system for PRISMS.  Research partners include Professors Novosselov, Posner, Korshin, Mamishev, Yost and Karr. The study will test the system for use in the HAPI asthma intervention study in Yakima, WA.

Close to 1 in 10 children in the U.S. suffer from asthma.  Children who have asthma are prone to acute exacerbations of airway inflammation (asthma “attacks”) that may be triggered by numerous environmental exposures, including infectious agents, pollens, smoke, mold, chemicals, etc.  The morbidity associated with children’s asthma is large. Asthma is the third most common cause for child hospitalization for those less than 15 years old. It is a leading cause of school absenteeism.  And, there are large public health disparities associated with asthma: those that are poor, and of certain races and ethnicities are more likely to suffer from asthma.  Through the technologies developed in the PRISMS program, improved understanding of the relationship between exposures and asthma symptoms may help researchers and asthmatic families manage the disease better.



New grant to use low-cost sensors in a community-based study of hazardous air pollutants associated with fracking in California’s Central Valley

We just received a grant from the New World Foundation through the 11th Hour Project’s pooled fund.  The new grant will allow us to use Internet-connected low-cost sensors to investigate hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) in California’s Central Valley.  This community-initiated study led by Clean Water Action, involves multiple partners working collectively to examine hazardous air pollution in a region where unconventional oil and gas extraction, such as fracking occurs. My research group at the University of Washington is pleased to support the project by providing the sensor technology and data analytics for the study.  By using a distributed network of real-time sensors, advanced algorithms to pinpoint air pollution episodes, and targeted measurement of multiple HAPs associated with fracking, we hope to improve understanding of exposures to toxic air in communities next to unconventional oil and gas extraction.

This project builds upon other community-engaged studies that we and other organisations are conducting, which includes establishing a large-scale community-run PM2.5 and PM10 monitoring network in Imperial County, CA.  As with our other studies, active engagement and grassroots participation of community residents will likely be the key to this new project’s success.

Imperial County, California Installs the First Air Quality Monitor for its Community Monitoring Network

First Community Monitor installed at Brawley High School

Yesterday, I was in Imperial County, CA installing the first of 40 new Community Air Quality Monitors as part of study funded by the NIH NIEHS Research to Action Program.

Paul English of the Public Health Institute is the Principal Investigator for this community-engaged research study. Luis Olmedo of Comite Civico Del Valle is working to organize members of the community to lead and sustain the monitoring.  And, my group at the University of Washington is responsible for the monitors.

My PhD student, Graeme Carvlin and I developed the community monitors for this project, which consist of a modified Dylos DC1700, which measures particulate matter in 4 size bins.  Each monitor uses a networked microcontroller, and has onboard data storage as well as additional sensors for temperature and relative humidity.  The data from the monitoring network will undergo quality checks and will be publicly available through the IVAN website.

Yesterday, we had great support from Brawley High School’s leadership, teachers, staff, and students to install our first monitor.  The members of the school’s shop class helped us fabricate a sturdy stand to mount our monitor.  The networking admin at the school helped us pull a new Internet line just for monitor.  And, we did all this in 106 deg F heat.  It was a tremendous team effort.  Brawley High has great community spirit.  Go Wildcats!

For the launch of the monitoring site today, I prepared the following press statement:

Remarks from Dr. Edmund Seto
Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences
University of Washington

Today marks an important milestone in air quality monitoring in Imperial County.

Since the establishment of the Clean Air Act and the National Ambient Air Quality Standards in the 1970s, we have improved our understanding of just how important clean air is for health.  We have also improved our standards air quality, and how we monitor air pollution to meet these standards.  Like many regions across the US, there are only a handful of air quality monitors in operation in Imperial County.  Yet, these monitors serve a very important role of documenting progress towards meeting increasingly stringent air quality standards, and help guide planning activities to reduce air pollution emissions.

But can we do better monitoring?  In some ways, yes, we can.

Lower-cost air pollution monitoring technology provides new opportunities for groups to collect their own air pollution data.  While these low-cost monitors are not meant for regulatory purposes, they can play an important role in augmenting the existing regulatory monitoring network.  Because of their lower cost we can afford to monitor many more locations that we were not able to do in the past.  And, this can potentially fill gaps in knowledge.

Over the last year, I have been fortunate to be able to work with community representatives to design a low-cost air quality monitoring system that meets the needs of Imperial County. We call it a “Community Monitor” because it is operated by the community, for the community. I am excited that the first of many Community Monitors is being installed today in Brawley.

But, this is just a start.  As more community monitors are installed, and data become increasingly available from this monitoring network, we will need to explore ways to best use this new data.  Will this data be able to help the parents of an asthmatic child know when it is safe to play outside?  Will this data be able to help identify the sources of air pollution in our communities?  Will this data be able to help us understand if air pollution is getting better or worse over time in certain communities?  And, how well will this data compare to those collected from the regulatory monitoring network?

We may not have the answers to all these questions right now.  But certainly, many people — including federal, state, and regional agencies; the scientific research community; and community groups in the US and abroad – are looking at how we answer these questions in Imperial County.  So there is both a great potential for us to learn from Imperial’s Community Monitors, as well as a lot to share about what we have learned with others.

I congratulate everyone who contributed to this project.

New Phased Innovation Grant from NIEHS to Develop Next Generation Exposure Assessment Device

In collaboration with other UW collaborators, my research group will receive a new 5-year phased innovation grant from the NIEHS. Under the funding opportunity (RFA-ES-13-013), the intent is “to facilitate the translation of prototype devices for characterization of personal exposures into field use by supporting a phased validation effort involving a partnership between tool developers and environmental epidemiologists”.  The new grant will support much needed pilot-stage iterative prototyping, refinement, and usability testing of new exposure devices, which will demonstrate device reliability and data quality, and usefulness in real-world settings. The later stages of the grant will support larger scale deployment in a large epidemiological study to improve science and to refine associations between environmental exposures and health outcomes.  This new grant will utilize my new rapid prototyping lab at UW — a newly renovated space for collaborative design, engineering, and testing of new exposure assessment tools.


Congratulations — David Holstius graduates

Congratulations to David Holstius, who graduated over the weekend with a PhD in Environmental Health Sciences.  David’s dissertation, entitled “Monitoring Particulate Matter with Commodity Hardware”, describes work he’s done to develop and utilize lower-cost PM instruments for improved exposure assessment and environmental epidemiological studies.

Sensor Networks for Environmental Journalism

I’m participating in this event organized by Internews at Berkeley on April 30th. I’ll report soon on the technology I’m developing for this project…

Groundtruth and Airwaves: Sensor Networks and Emerging Technology for Environmental Journalism

Technology–as remote as satellites and as close as our smartphones–offers new opportunities for collecting data about environmental topics. Evidence of rising sea levels, poor air quality, noise pollution and more can now be gathered from wireless sensor networks, open public data sets, and user-generated data from social media platforms. These tools make it simpler to gather, analyze and visualize data, helping to drive news stories for journalists and more thoughtful engagement and advocacy by activists.

“Groundtruth and Airwaves” will showcase a number of newsworthy environmental and health-related sensor projects currently underway. After a session of Lightning Talks, working journalists from around the world will join a panel of technology experts and research scientists to explore opportunities and challenges found at the nexus of DIY sensors, crowdsourced data, and environmental and health journalism.

NOx dispersion modeling for the Black Women’s Study

For the NIH-funded Black Women’s Health Study, my group is estimating exposures to traffic-related air and noise pollution.  Previously, the traffic noise modeling was described here.

I now have preliminary results for NOx (NO and NO2) traffic air pollution dispersion model.  The model uses the best available roadway geometries, and traffic data, and emissions modeling to derive estimates of exposures.  Moreover, the exposure assessment methodology can be run anywhere in the U.S.  The figure shown is a coarse resolution example of the model applied to 5 boroughs of New York City. But, the model is being run to estimate NOx concentrations at the exact residential address of each person in the Black Women’s Health Study.

Currently the model makes use of parallel computing on a high performance cluster so that hundreds of thousands of exposures can be estimated in reasonable amounts of time.

For another application of our traffic air pollutant model see this, as well as recent the publication in Circulation, and conference proceeding from the 2013 Air & Waste Management Association 106th Annual Conference.


New paper on air quality modeling using real-time traffic data — NOKIA ClearSky project

Over the last couple years, UC Berkeley researchers (Professors Bayen, Glaser, and Seto) have collaborated with NOKIA on the ClearSky project to use state of the art traffic data from sensors and models to estimate air pollution in metropolitan areas. This builds off of progress our group has made towards the development of flexible interfaces to traffic pollution models.  In particular, the ClearSky project makes use of the Rcaline package developed by PhD student, David Holstius.  This forthcoming paper describes how various data and models are integrated into the ClearSky system:

Samaranayake S, Holstius D, Monteil J, Tracton K, Glaser S, Seto E, Bayen A (accepted) Real-time estimation of pollution emissions and dispersion from highway traffic.Computer-aided Civil and Infrastructure Engineering