Wisconsin Public Radio

Beloit Has Worst Air Pollution in U.S.?

So says international report. ‘It’s time for us to do something about it.’

By , Wisconsin Public Radio - May 27th, 2024 08:20 am
Brittany Keyes, clean air coordinator with Healthy Climate Wisconsin and a former Beloit City Council member, mounts a PurpleAir sensor at Nature at the Confluence, an outdoor education center in South Beloit, Illinois, in May 2023. Photo courtesy Brittany Keyes

Brittany Keyes, clean air coordinator with Healthy Climate Wisconsin and a former Beloit City Council member, mounts a PurpleAir sensor at Nature at the Confluence, an outdoor education center in South Beloit, Illinois, in May 2023. Photo courtesy Brittany Keyes

In the wake of an international report finding a southern Wisconsin city had the worst polluted air in the U.S., a community-science initiative is continuing its mission to monitor air quality for itself.

Volunteers in Beloit are using PurpleAir monitors on loan from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to measure air quality in six locations within the city. IQAir, a Swiss tech company, shared its results about Beloit and other cities around the world in its 2023 annual report.

Brittany Keyes, clean air coordinator with Healthy Climate Wisconsin and a former Beloit City Council member, said the Beloit project is trying to get more funding to expand the local air monitoring network. Leaders on the research project also created the Stateline Clean Air Coalition, which she said is looking for air quality solutions to improve public health.

Keyes said she wants to kick the most-polluted title, “Because we earned it.”

“I’m a mom of two young kids,” she said. “Now that we have this data, this is our designation. It’s time for us to do something about it.”

Pablo Toral leads the environmental studies program at Beloit College. He and Keyes recently joined WPR’s “Wisconsin Today,” where Toral said Beloit has the three main sources that lead to air pollution: manufacturing, tailpipe emissions from transportation, and power plants.

“Some communities have one. Some communities have two. Beloit has all three,” he said. “Add to that a very, very active and long wildfire season in Canada.”

In 2022, Rock County reported about 2.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions. Cook County in Illinois — where Chicago is — reported fewer than 2 million, according to the EPA. Rock County has far fewer people and therefore has fewer economic, social and political resources to address the problem, he said.

“The plan moving forward has to be regional, has to be at the state level,” Toral said. “This is a Wisconsin issue. This is a Midwest issue. Wisconsin and Illinois have to work together to address this.”

The community science project collected data from the end of 2022 to early 2023. Keyes said her group’s data missed the effects of the wildfires, but data was still showing Beloit’s pollution levels at two or three times higher than what the World Health Organization says is safe.

That was enough for a call to action on its own, she said. Then the IQAir report added to the picture.

The Beloit project measured particulate matter pollution, which are molecules so small that they go into the deepest parts of the lungs and absorb into the bloodstream, Keyes explained. That means the pollution can hurt almost every system in the body. She said the pollution can exacerbate asthma symptoms or chronic pulmonary conditions.

The World Health Organization says exposure to air pollution is linked to stroke, ischemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and pneumonia. Some evidence also suggests links to adverse pregnancy outcomes.

The Beloit project has partnered with local schools and community centers to reach everyone in the community — but especially the city’s most vulnerable residents, Keyes said.

Students from Beloit Memorial High School also helped register and mount sensors. One of Toral’s students helped him put together a proposal to get more money to set up a sensor at Beloit College.

Community engagement extended through the League of Women Voters, which Toral said organized a series of talks to amplify the group’s message about the importance of clean air. Since then, he said more groups have reached out asking how to get involved.

“This snowballing effect has been absolutely fantastic in terms of creating awareness, educating the population and getting people to take matters into their own hands,” he said.

Keyes recognizes that state and federal agencies have limits on personnel and funding. But she said about two-thirds of Wisconsin counties lack state Department of Natural Resources air monitors.

“This is a great example of, ‘You don’t know what you’re not monitoring,’” she said. “Just because you’re not monitoring doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem.”

DNR offers advice on improving the state’s air quality

The state DNR named May as Clean Air Month. The agency shared tips for residents to maintain good air quality levels and minimize harm to what people breathe. The advice includes:

Transportation: Walk or ride a bike to a destination instead of driving because vehicle emissions are one of the largest sources of ozone-forming pollutants. It’s important to keep vehicles serviced and remove unnecessary weight, steps that can help fuel efficiency.

The home and yard: Close window shades to lower use of air conditioning. Another piece of home-care advice is to keep lawnmower blades sharp and to mow during the evening. Compost or recycle rather than burn lawn clippings and yard waste.

The outdoors: Use an electric grill, sustainably harvested charcoal or a charcoal chimney. Lighter fluid can lead to more carbon monoxide. Outdoor recreation, such as kayaking, canoeing, sailing or hiking, are activities with minimal or zero harm to air quality.

Wisconsin city measures its own air quality as it is named country’s most polluted was originally published by Wisconsin Public Radio.

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