Co-host Anna speaks with AirGuardian about their efforts to improve air quality in different communities in California. The following is a transcript of the conversation, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity. Listen to the full episode here.
[Anna:] …Today we’re here with one of SpaceshipOne’s partners, Air Guardian. Their mission is really similar to SpaceshipOne’s, with a specific focus on air quality.
They’ve worked with several different communities across California to identify local air quality issues and provide resources to people in those communities. For example, they recently gave a workshop teaching people how to build their own air sensors, using LEGOs. My co-host Paloma is actually the Program Lead for Air Guardian, and we’re also joined by SpaceshipOne crew member Michelle. She’s Air Guardian’s Outreach Coordinator.
Welcome to the podcast. How about we start with how you got involved in air quality work? Paloma, would you like to start us off?
[Paloma:] Hi everyone. My name is Paloma. You might recognize my voice from other podcast episodes. I’m co-host on the podcast, but I also run the Air Guardian program.
I grew up in Imperial Valley, and our sort of claim to fame is that we have one of the most polluted cities in the United States. It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized that wasn’t normal. Not everybody has classmates who have asthma, not everybody isn’t able to go outside. Not everybody is used to not being able to see mountain ranges, just because there’s so much smog and ozone that you can’t actually see them even though they’re pretty close by.
This is all fresh in my mind, too, because I was just back home this last weekend, just visiting my parents and sort of reflecting back on that and being able to do this workshop, especially with a community so similar to my own. And seeing the students engage and be so, I don’t know, I– it’s, it’s such a tough thing to explain, but it’s like, okay, I understand why teachers go into this.
It just reminds me of when I was a high school student realizing, like, science and engineering is something that’s actually possible. And it’s actually something that can be used to help my community.
[Anna:] So true. Michelle, do you wanna jump in?
[Michelle:] Yeah, sure. So my name’s Michelle. I’m the Outreach Coordinator for Air Guardian, also one of the crew members [at] SpaceshipOne.
Similar to Paloma, my community has experienced a lot of air pollution due to the amount of traffic that goes through our community. We have three freeways that run through Stockton. And so it wasn’t until I went to college as well that I realized that this problem stems from politics.Iit stems from people not talking to each other.
And something that recently we did is we were part of [an] event called Stockton Earth Day. Organizations come in with their projects, their products, vegan food– anything that is sustainable and meant to protect the planet. And what was really inspiring about it was realizing how many people are working together to solve these issues. We’re all coming together to pool our resources together and really just show the community that work is being done, they’re being heard, and we can all be part of the solutions that are needed for people to breathe clean air.
And that’s also what we did with the workshop– you know, bringing these low-cost technologies to the community and letting the youth handle it, engage it, interact with it. Let them start asking questions about their air– questions that, you know, haven’t really been brought up since there’s not a lot of science, not a lot of tech, in these communities.
You know, this workshop was just the beginning. I mean, we see this being spread everywhere. Let the youth start creating their own workshops. Really what we’re just doing is, we’re planting the seed for the youth to realize what kind of power they have, and what they can do with this knowledge as well.
[Anna:] Yeah, that empowerment piece is so critical. I kind of want to back up and talk about why communities like Stockton and your hometown, Paloma, in the Imperial Valley, do face these disparities in air quality?
[Paloma:] Yeah. I mean, I could talk all day about this. It’s a really common pattern, unfortunately, that the areas populated by people with low income, populated by immigrants, populated by Black and Brown people, are facing a lot of these pollution sources. And it varies. I mean, in areas like Michelle’s, I think she just mentioned the highways. In mine, I could point to the industry out in Mexicali, which is right across the border, and I don’t even wanna get into the regulations.
A lot of different zoning decisions went into our built environment. A lot of different committees, that were likely inaccessible, went into choosing where these factories are gonna be, where these highways are gonna be, you know. Why is it that people can’t attend zoning decision hearings? They’re working to put food on the table. They’re working night shifts. Especially in such an expensive state like California.
Then you look into the housing aspect of things; what can people afford? More likely than not, the affordable areas are the ones right near all the pollution. And it has an even deeper history in the United States, especially because of racism and segregation and redlining. And segregation never really went away either.
[Michelle:] Yeah. Talking about redlined communities, I actually spoke with a community member this morning about the work that he’s doing as a researcher and scientist here in Stockton, and he mentioned that as he’s been looking into these redlining maps. He’s recognized a pattern that where these communities are is where you’ll find oil refineries, where you’ll find most of the air pollution pooling, where you’ll find there’s the least amount of studies.
There’s not enough air monitors being placed near these areas. So when you check your AirNow.gov, you won’t find that the air is bad there because it will be stationed somewhere else. Unless they put an air monitor in that neighborhood, you’re really not gonna see that data reflect that these people are being impacted by this oil refinery that’s next to their house.
How many communities are out there that are being impacted by bad air pollution, and it’s hidden because there’s no data reporting it? There’s no one to tell these people when they move in, ‘Hey, you’re in an area where you’re breathing in who-knows-what.’ And unfortunately, people will move in and stay there for years, exposing themselves.
And it’s only now that we have nonprofits that are providing these air quality monitors, like Purple Air. [They’re] asking community members, ‘Can we put this outside your home so we can create this map? A real-time map that tells you what your air quality is like, in real-time.’
And as they’re doing this, they’re starting to see these trends and patterns, and now they can advocate for these community members, talk to the oil refineries and tell them, ‘Hey, you guys are going outside of the bounds of what your permit says. Where is your permit?’ And [they] start getting these agencies to come in and do the work that we can’t.
And it’s very important work. I think we’re just barely scratching the surface of what we can do for community members, and what they can do for themselves.
[Paloma:] There are a lot of industries that also lobby against regulations and against putting any type of monitor near where they are because that means they’ll probably have to pay a fine.
But I do want to share, from my own experience talking to different community members: a lot of people know that they are breathing bad air. There’s a smell. People get respiratory conditions from breathing bad air.
[Michelle:] Yeah. At the end of the day, this data is more just to help to get change to happen, because usually to get change to happen, you have to have the data to support that people are breathing bad air and that these health impacts are not just a coincidence.
Like you mentioned, community members do know that they’re smelling something off. They know something suspicious is happening because they’re realizing their neighbors and themselves have asthma. But they don’t have the means or the resources to do something about it.
And that’s why we come in to provide those resources they need, so that they can do that work for themselves, or get the help that they need.
[Anna:] I’m curious, do either of you know what are the top three or top five sources of air pollution in the world? I’m sure fossil fuel is one of the biggest ones.
[Paloma:] That’s a really big question. There’s so many different types of air pollution. I think that’s one of the biggest things I’ve learned while working at Air Guardian. You could be talking about particulate matter, you could be talking about ozone, you could be talking about sulfur dioxide. There’s different policies aimed at each specific pollutant at times. Then you get into the different governance strategies. I mean, the WHO is completely different from the EPA. It’s just a lot more complicated, I think, than having a ‘top three emission sources’.
[Anna:] Yeah. People probably don’t know that there are so many different types of air pollution. Like, we just hear ‘air pollution’ and it’s just kind of this umbrella term. But, what is the pollutant? Like you were saying, like sulfur dioxide. Or carbon dioxide– you know, our climate is being polluted with excess CO2 and methane and all of that.
[Michelle:] Yeah, and there’s other pollutants that people are a little bit more familiar with, like carbon monoxide, but then there’s others that are not publicly spoken about. There’s policy set in place for them, but how much or how little they’re allowing to be released from these sources, like warehouses, [or]diesel trucks– it’s different in every location. Some are more strict than others, like California has to be one of the more progressive states in the United States.
But that’s not to say that it can’t be more improved, and that’s the greater hope of it all, right? That we can continue to improve the air of people. I mean, we should try to reach, you know, the best kind of air that people can have. We shouldn’t just say, like, ‘Okay, this is the standard we’re gonna set’, and leave it at that.
It’s why you see such an amount of changes in policy and laws throughout the years because we’re realizing [with] even the lowest number that we set, there’s still health impacts. And if there are still health impacts, we need to go further.
[Anna:] Yeah, that’s making me think of like whenever I check my air quality on like AirNow.gov or Purple Air or whatever, I’ll see that it’s like a 47, and it’s green and it’s ‘good’. That’s what it says: ‘good’, and I’m like, ‘what?’ Like, shouldn’t good be zero? Shouldn’t that be the standard or the goal for good air? Zero amount of pollutants in the air, right?
[Paloma:] Yeah, that’s a really good point. I wanna say even for some of the more explicit pollutants that we know for a fact– it’s not a question of research– that any amount [is bad], and we still don’t have the regulatory action set to zero just because there’s so many different discussions, a lot of lobbyists, a lot of scientists, and we’re all just trying to find something that’s achievable. But you’re right, we should be reaching for that zero, for that level of pristine air that should be accessible to everyone.
[Anna:] That’s right. So, for our listeners, what are some things that we can do to improve our air quality?
[Paloma:] For your indoor air, you can make your own air filter or you can purchase one, because that helps catch a lot of the smaller particulates.
If you’re doing any activities that can lead to having poor air, like painting a room– or even when you’re cleaning, [since] a lot of cleaning supplies can release a lot of toxic VOCs. So make sure there’s proper ventilation and that you’re able to air out the space by opening doors and windows. And if you can’t do that, you can turn on an exhaust fan in your bathroom or in your kitchen. Especially whenever you’re cooking using a gas stove, you really wanna make sure that that exhaust fan is on, to take out a lot of the VOCs that can get trapped in your air.
And if you’re looking to exercise or go outside, you can always check out AirNow.gov for the status of your air quality. [It]also just helps in case you have allergies, just FYI.
[Michelle:] Right, and see who’s doing work in your area in terms of air quality. So there’s, you know, nonprofits, there’s grassroot organizations, that campaign for clean air, for more stringent emission policies. You can talk to your local assembly members and see what kind of bills they’re supporting.
And there’s always going to be people who are passionate about clean air, whether it’s in your neighborhood, [or]in your state. Maybe you can be part of, you know, a new grassroots organization, or you can be the one that starts a social media campaign, bringing attention to what’s going on in your neighborhood.
You can also take public transportation. Because we know everyone driving a car can lead to more emissions and just taking the step of taking public transportation, you could be part of the change of, you know, reducing emissions in itself.
[Anna:] Yeah. It’s so important to show the ways that we can actually improve air quality as individuals and as communities.
So, what’s next for Air Guardian?
[Paloma:] We’re really excited to be working with a group out here in San Diego and in Austin, Texas, to expand our workshop. We’re also talking about attending the American Aerosol Association Conference later on in October. We’re also finally getting a new website, so you guys can check us out at airguardian.org.
You can also check out Air Guardian on social media and give us a follow, and share about a lot of different air quality information, including everything that we’ve talked about so far. We’re working on also translating a lot of our different outreach materials at the moment. So, [we’re] really excited.
[Anna:] Thank you both so much for coming on the podcast and for doing all the work that you do at Air Guardian. I am always so excited to hear your updates. Clean air is a human right and I’m so glad that SpaceshipOne has Air Guardian as a partner to really push that forward.