Across New York, a fleet of Google Street View vehicles are tracking a number of key pollutants

At first glance, Ramses Diaz’s car looks like any other driving through New York City. Then I spot the phrase “I measure the air quality” on the left door. Inside, a dashboard-mounted tablet displays a map of New York City, and two large boxes in the trunk beam massive amounts of data back to servers in California. I go in with Diaz and we head out to track air quality in Brooklyn.

In July, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced the launch of a nationwide mobile air quality and greenhouse gas monitoring initiative. The goal is to measure pollution levels in 10 regions: Niagara Falls, the state capital region, the Bronx, Manhattan, Rochester, Syracuse, Mount Vernon, Brooklyn, Queens and Hempstead.

The project is one of the actions the state is taking to meet the goals of New York’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which aims to cut emissions by 40 percent by 2030, said Adriana Espinoza, Deputy Commissioner for Justice and Human Rights Justice at the State Department of Environmental Protection (DEC).

Over the course of a year, California technology company Aclima will collect air quality data from a fleet of 21 modified Google Street View vehicles, each named after famous musicians. These cars will drive around all 10 areas day after day. Ramses and I are in The Flash for Grandmaster Flash, the South Bronx hip-hop pioneer.

Every second, a filter in the vehicle examines the air to detect the presence and concentration of particulate matter (PM 2.5), nitrogen dioxide, ozone, carbon monoxide, methane, carbon dioxide, soot and benzene, among other things. The connected wireless network then sends the data to the west coast for analysis.

By the end of the year, the cars will have completed the designated routes at least 20 times. This is to account for weather changes, congestion, industrial traffic, and other atmospheric conditions affecting air quality.

Diaz, 49, a photographer from Venezuela, became a driver because he had to work. Still, he said he found purpose in his job. He knows the air is very polluted, “but you don’t see it,” he said. “If you have a kid you want to know the air quality because maybe they might have asthma, you know?”

In its 2020 Community Air Survey, the New York City Health Department found that the city’s levels of particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, and nitrous oxide have decreased by 43, 39, and 56 percent, respectively, since 2009. In March, the Environmental Protection Agency reported that emission reductions have resulted in dramatic improvements in air quality not just in New York but across the United States.

“These air quality improvements have enabled many areas of the country to meet national air quality standards set to protect public health and the environment,” the agency said on its website.

But that is not the case for every church.

“The pollution we’re dealing with now is more like hotspots,” said Eric Schaffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, a Washington DC-based nonprofit. He explained that while air quality is improving overall, there are some communities and neighborhoods where pollution levels are more intense.

As Diaz drives over the Brooklyn Bridge, the day begins to clear. The blue sky looks clean – but the reality is more complicated. “Brooklyn is very polluted,” Diaz said.

Thinking back to his childhood in Queens, Arif Ullah, 50, recalls that he and most of his friends had asthma. “I thought that was normal, you know?” he said. “It was only later that I realized it was the air pollution.”

Now Ullah works as a social and environmental justice advocate for the community organization South Bronx Unite. “Heart disease, obesity, diabetes, dementia. All of these diseases are linked to exposure to air pollution.”

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A recent study found that eliminating PM 2.5 — tiny particles about one-thirtieth the diameter of a human hair that are released from burning fossil fuels and from construction dust and wildfires — saves more than 50,000 premature deaths in the country each year would prevent. It would also prevent nearly 3,000 nonfatal heart attacks, 15,000 asthma-related emergency room visits and 3.68 million lost work days due to illness.

“The quality of life in the community is being severely impacted,” Ullah said, referring to the South Bronx. But for many years, researchers and government agencies have been conducting environmental studies without involving local residents in the process. The Environmental Protection Agency decided to change that.

Since the tracking project began, the DEC has made it its mission to work with communities. They partnered with the Climate Justice Working Group, an organization of representatives from environmental justice communities across the state, and held meetings with community stakeholders in each of the 10 areas before beginning monitoring.

At the first meeting, they presented the initiative and then had a second meeting to get feedback from the community, Espinoza said. Ullah was there.

South Bronx Unite became interested in the initiative because people have known for years that they breathe toxic air but had no data to prove it.

The country has had the technology to assess air quality for decades, but up until about a decade ago it was very expensive, explained Melissa Lunden, senior scientist at Aclima. Also, according to EPA data and independent monitoring organizations, the EPA’s network of surveillance devices has a history of missing the mark.

The agency has repeatedly failed to identify toxic releases and daily pollution hazards, and its observers are unevenly spread across the country, according to the monitoring agencies. As of 2020, about 120 million Americans lived in counties where the EPA did not have pollution monitors.

In addition, the concentrations of pollutants such as benzene contained in gasoline vary over short distances. A stationary air monitor can detect low levels within its detection range and not see the high levels occurring thousands of feet away.

“You’re going to get a statement from the agency that says, ‘Oh, we measured it and we didn’t find any risk,'” Schaffer said.

The aim should be to use the data collected by Aclima to implement longer-term monitoring projects, stressed Schaffer. Always include the perspectives of the communities on the issues being studied because “surveillance is not foolproof”.

The data Aclima is collecting will help the Department of Environmental Conservation and communities have a clearer understanding of pollution levels and craft-specific solutions.

“We may see data showing that certain pollutants are showing elevated levels, but that doesn’t necessarily tell us what the source is,” said Jared Snyder, DEC deputy commissioner for Air Resources, Climate Change and Energy.

It will also provide information to the DEC to request government funding and incentives for communities, including incentives for electric trucks and construction funds for more green space.

Ullah also hopes the data will be disclosed and shared with communities. For too long, agencies and researchers have come into frontline communities, but never when their jobs are done, he said. Ullah said community activists wanted to be able to do more analysis for themselves.

South Bronx Unite is also working to leverage the Aclima tracking project to conduct its own studies. There are plans to install fixed ground-level monitors in some of the neighborhood’s pollution hotspots to get any data not previously collected. The group recently applied for a DEC grant to fund this initiative. “We go deeper. We go wider. We collect it over the years,” Ullah said.

After driving one of his assigned routes, Diaz drops me off in front of the Marriott Hotel in downtown Manhattan where he picked me up. Passers-by look curiously at the car. It happens to him all the time, he said. When he stops at a red light or parks for lunch, people ask him what the air quality is like. “I can sense that people who ask me are a little surprised and say, ‘Hey, finally someone is doing something about the air.'”