EPA funds research to improve air quality monitoring, health risk communication

Smoke billows from the Cameron Peak fire north of Rocky Mountain National Park in 2020.
Smoke billows from the Cameron Peak Fire north of Rocky Mountain National Park on Aug. 13, 2020. A CSU project funded by the EPA will expand monitoring of airborne particulate matter in communities impacted by wildfires and improve smoke exposure messaging. Courtesy of Emily Fischer and Peter Girard

Colorado State University researchers will receive nearly $1 million from the Environmental Protection Agency to expand air quality monitoring in communities impacted by wildfires and improve communication of health risks from smoke exposure.

Researchers will work with community partners throughout Colorado to add low-cost air quality monitors in places that aren’t currently monitored. They will create real-time, high-resolution maps to help people understand air pollution in their community and make decisions to minimize smoke exposure.

Emily Fischer, associate professor of atmospheric science, will lead an interdisciplinary team of scientists from the Departments of Atmospheric Science, Journalism and Media Communication, and Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences.

The grant is one of 12 research projects funded through the EPA Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program to develop interventions and communication strategies to reduce wildfire smoke exposure and the associated health risks.

“Studies have shown that wildfires in the Western U.S. are likely to continue with increasing regularity, so we should be prepared for that in the future,” said Jeff Pierce, an investigator on the project and atmospheric science professor. “We’re hoping people can make choices to protect their health with the extra information we will provide.”

Where there’s smoke, there are health impacts

Fischer, Pierce, and Bonne Ford, who are atmospheric scientists, and Sheryl Magzamen, an epidemiologist, have worked together on previous studies on the health impacts of wildfire smoke. They found that smoke was associated with increased hospitalizations for asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and some cardiovascular health outcomes.

For this project, the researchers will build on the citizen science-based PurpleAir network, a series of low-cost sensors that detect fine particles in the air. Inhaling this particulate matter, called PM 2.5, is the biggest immediate health threat from wildfire smoke.

Working with community partners, the CSU team will fill in gaps where monitors are needed. Air quality can vary significantly from one area of town to another, so the scientists want to ensure even and equitable coverage.

The sensors will connect wirelessly to web portals, so citizens can access data on PM 2.5 concentrations in real time. The researchers envision maps with contours indicating the concentration levels across a community.

CSU will partner with the City of Fort Collins to pilot the program this summer, before rolling it out to other Colorado communities. Fort Collins already has some air quality infrastructure in place that the team will use as a foundation.

Targeted messaging

Collecting air quality data consistently and continuously is only half the battle. The project’s goal is to protect public health through improved communication.

Ashley Anderson and Katie Abrams, investigators and associate professors of journalism and media communication, study how people react to different types of communication. They aim to improve messages about health risks from smoke exposure and how people receive them.

Anderson and Abrams will conduct interviews and focus groups with different audiences to understand how they perceive the risks of poor air quality for their health, their awareness of air quality issues, who they trust for information on the topic, and what motivates them to take action.

“We are exploring ways to make [the messages] more targeted based on audience characteristics,” Anderson said. “For example, we might reach outdoor workers in different ways and with different messages than we would reach day care directors or those with chronic health conditions, such as asthma, that put them at greater risk.”

Using this evidence-based approach, the researchers hope to motivate people to seek air quality information and take action to protect their health. The messages they develop will connect specific levels of air pollution with actions people can take to stay safe, which might mean staying indoors or wearing an N95 mask outdoors.

“Wouldn’t it be great if people routinely checked the air quality the way they check the weather?” Anderson said. “These are important steps that will eventually lead people to take more actions that will better protect their long-term health.”