Editor’s note: This story is part three in a series on the impacts of asthma.
Every morning, the sixth-grade students at DePaolo Middle School run excitedly to Toni-Ann Rock's science classroom to check the day’s air quality on the National Air Quality Index website.
The Air Quality Index tracks the five major air pollutants regulated by the National Clean Air Act, which can cause the most bodily harm after being breathed in, such as ground-level ozone, particulate pollution, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide.
Rock has been teaching science for the past 24 years and teaching air quality monitoring. She said the air quality is good most days, so the students put a green flag in the back of her classroom. However, over the last few years, Rock said that the students have placed yellow, orange and red flags as the air quality in the area gradually worsens.
“When the kids would see a quality change … they were so into it, almost excited about it,” Rock said. “Then, they had to take a step back and think, ‘wait, but this isn’t that good.’”
The flag system implemented at DePaolo is just one of the many efforts in the region to address local air quality issues and their resulting health impact.What’s the health impact?
More than one in three Americans live in places with unhealthy levels of air pollution, according to the 2023 State of the Air report by the American Lung Association.
Director of Advocacy for the American Lung Association of Connecticut, Ruth Canovi, previously told the Record-Journal that too much air pollution exposure could lead to many short and long-term health problems.
For example, the 2023 State of the Air report found that cars and trucks often emit particulate pollutants. Short-term exposure results in increased emergency room and hospital admissions for people with chronic heart and lung conditions. Long-term exposure, however, raises a person’s likelihood of developing diabetes, lung cancer and dementia.
In Connecticut, Waterbury, Meriden and New Haven were identified as the cities with the highest rates of outdoor air pollutants and asthma-related emergency department visits over the past five years, according to the state Department of Public Health.
“There’s a lot of systemic issues around housing and placement of highways and power plants. It just increases exposure to especially low-income neighborhoods,” Canovi said.
Middlesex Health primary care physician Dr. Jenny Borovinskaya said poor air quality inside a person’s home can also worsen health outcomes. For example, she said wall-to-wall carpeting often collects debris and allergens that can aggravate asthma symptoms when not cleaned correctly.
Similarly, Borovinskaya said one patient can’t be inside her home if her neighbor decides it’s time for a smoke break.
“Whenever [her neighbors] are home and they are smoking, she can’t be [in her house]. She has trouble breathing and wheezing even though this is neighbors. [Smoke] is something that gets into her home through the outside like an open window, versus peeping through the floors, walls, holes, things like that,” Borovinskaya said. “So, if the housing is in poor condition, that can affect it as well.” Addressing outdoor air quality
Throughout the years, the state has made successful efforts to address the various forms of outdoor air pollution, said Jacob Felton, director of the Air Enforcement Division at the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP).
Felton explained that most of the past initiatives were made to change the regulations regarding pollution from in-state stationary sources, like power plants and manufacturing facilities. However, he said that mobile pollution sources, like cars, profoundly impact air quality, especially on-the-ground ozone levels.
“Our ozone problem is really due to out-of-state sources,” Felton said.
To reduce diesel air pollution, DEEP announced an estimated $1.46 million to fund eight projects for the 2022 Diesel Emissions Reduction Act state grant program. Felton said that the goal is to replace various diesel engines with electric ones through rebates.
The grant projects are predicted to help reduce over 25 tons of excess nitrogen dioxide and remove nearly 30,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions, according to the DEEP. This is about removing more than 6,600 cars.
Felton added there can be many hyperlocal situations that impact air quality. For example, Felton explained that they often receive air quality complaints from neighborhoods with high dust or dark smoke from their local factories.
To monitor and identify hyperlocal sources of pollution, DEEP launched the Geospatial Measurement of Air Pollution vehicle earlier in the summer, also known as the GMAP vehicle. The GMAP vehicle is equipped with air pollution analyzers, meteorological instrumentation and high-precision GPS.
The vehicle is based out of East Hartford and tracks 16 different air pollutants, such as toxic vapors, particulate matter, and greenhouse gasses.
Felton explained that the vehicle is operated by a two-person team –a driver and an analyzer who monitors the live data. As they drive through the city, the analyzer will document anything “unusual,” and they can then investigate its source.
He added that they will eventually map the collected data and release their findings to the community.
“We can see the pollution in real-time,” Felton said. Addressing indoor air quality
DEEP also introduced a variety of initiatives and projects to address indoor air quality issues
For example, the Residential Energy Preparation Services program is designed to help income-eligible households remove health hazards and increase access to energy-efficient housing. The federal program was launched in May and is funded by $12.3 million from the State Energy Program, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and the American Rescue Plan Act.
Similarly, a new project in Wallingford would see the design of a geothermal heating and cooling system for Ulbrich Heights, a 132-unit development operated by the Wallingford Housing Authority. The new geothermal system will serve at least 50% of the heating and cooling needs of the complex.
The new project was created in May as a collaboration between the DEEP, the University of Connecticut, the Wallingford Housing Authority, Wallingford Electric Division and the Northeast Energy Efficiency Partnerships is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.
When implemented, the planned district geothermal heating and cooling system at Ulbrich Heights will save at least 155 tons of CO2 emissions annually while improving air quality for the 21 handicapped, 19 elderly, and 100 female-headed households on the site, said George M. Bollas, director of UConn’s Pratt & Whitney Institute for Advanced Systems Engineering, in a press release.
“It is a great opportunity to strengthen our green energy and climate change research portfolio, engage and support communities of the state, and translate systems engineering research to practices that have direct impact on Connecticut’s building decarbonization efforts,” Bollas said. Building awareness
Although Rock has been helping her students monitor the local air quality index for almost eight years, she said that there’s still not enough concern regarding air quality’s impact on a person’s overall health.
She remembered the first time she flew a red flag, meaning unhealthy air quality, only the students seemed worried about it. As more and more red flags crop up, Rock stresses the need for increased awareness of the effect of poor air quality.
“It wasn’t worth it to anybody putting [the air quality flags] on the flagpole 10 years ago, it was kind of silly” Rock said. “Now, everybody knows it as a need.”
Health Equity reporter Cris Villalonga-Vivoni is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. They can be reached at email@example.com and 203-317-2448. Support RFA reporters at the Record-Journal through a donation at https://bit.ly/3Pdb0re.