St. Louis environmental group helps urban farmers detect air pollution with monitors
A St. Louis environmental community group is helping urban farmers monitor harmful pollution levels in north St. Louis and north St. Louis County.
Climate Changents received a $50,000 grant from Burroughs Wellcome Fund to install 10 air quality monitoring machines in historically polluted areas to detect fine particles that can be released through combustion.
Monitoring air quality can determine if crops will be healthy to consume, said Thi Nguyen, co-founder of Climate Changents.
“In north county, there are so many unique challenges that this community faces,” Nguyen said. “It would be a matter of collecting that data and then working together to make those changes.”
After taking air samples, the machines will show real time air quality data similar to that collected by the Environmental Protection Agency to determine if air quality is hazardous. Each monitor’s location is shown on an online map that updates air quality numbers every 10 minutes.
Nguyen said the data could help spark conversations about environmental issues in communities of color.
“When they get a monitor like this and put it on their property and collect the data to try to understand where it's coming from, then [they could] advocate for local government or industry to do something because they can show a direct line to ‘this is our air and it's affecting my breathing and it's related to what you're doing,'” she said.
The air quality monitoring machines do not pick up the type of pollutants that are in the air, nor do they signify where the pollutants come from. Users can see the time of day that their air quality is higher than normal and begin to investigate or bring to the attention of officials or industry leaders.
The data could help Janett Lewis, who runs the Rustic Roots Sanctuary farm in Spanish Lake. She grows vegetables, fruits and herbs. She also raises animals including chickens and goats and has a few beehives on her property.
Lewis said her farm has been a bit dry and dusty lately. She’s worried that the pollutants from the Mississippi River and the future demolition of Jamestown Mall, which are both nearby, could affect her plant growth and yield.
“You can do everything in your power to make sure the food is organically grown and no toxic chemicals are put on them, but if they're in the air, then obviously it's still going to affect the quality of your food and what we're taking into our bodies,” Lewis said.
She is also worried that air pollution could harm the bees on her property.
“Last year, we lost 50% of our hives, and it's actually a pretty normal statistic [because] they have things called colony collapse disorder … and I definitely think it's pollutant related,” Lewis said.
Yong Soo Kim, an employee at Rustic Roots Sanctuary, will use the monitor to see if more trees need to be planted on the farm to help trap some of the particulate matter that flows in the air.
Climate Changents also used the grant funds to place monitors on other urban farms, including Phi Global Farms in Spanish Lake. And the group placed monitors in schools and churches across north St. Louis and north St. Louis County.
“Communities can do something about [air pollution] — it is working together and installing these monitors and having conversations,” Nguyen said. “By showing different schools, churches and communities doing this, I hope it can empower and inspire people.”