Tracking air quality: State expands Valley monitoring program to 10 more communities in region

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 01-12-2023 2:08 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Smoke drifting into New England from wildfires in the western United States last summer, tracked by sensors in Holyoke, Greenfield and other area communities, gave residents real-time information about its causing poor air quality.

The data was displayed on an interactive website launched last spring by the Pioneer Valley Healthy Air Network (PVHealthyAir.org), where residents can see both an air quality index and data about the amount of fine particulate matter, along with advisories about whether or not to venture outdoors.

For the state attorney general’s office, which in 2021 backed the installation of 75 long-term air quality monitors in neighborhoods in Holyoke, Easthampton, Greenfield, Springfield, Chicopee, East Longmeadow and Westfield, its Clean Air Initiative is about getting a better grasp of how certain communities are disproportionately affected by environmental injustices, including elevated air pollution.

This week, the attorney general’s office announced that 10 more monitors will be installed, bringing additional communities near the Interstate 91 corridor into the program, including Northampton, Amherst, Hadley, Deerfield and Sunderland. They will go on municipal buildings, in homes by request and at health care provider offices, though in Orange and Palmer, which joins Athol in the program, they will be installed at state Department of Transportation maintenance depots.

Former Attorney General Maura Healey, who on Thursday began her new role as Massachusetts governor, said in a statement that families in the Connecticut Valley region have been unjustly burdened with environmental pollution.

“Thanks to the help of our partners and the guidance of community members, we are putting the region on the path to cleaner air by expanding this important initiative into new cities and towns, providing more residents with the tools they need to protect themselves from the serious health risks posed by air pollution,” Healey said.

Those partners Healey references include the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts, which has spearheaded the initiative; and Yale University, Baystate Health, ReGreen Springfield and the city of Springfield.

The hope is that the monitors will give a better understanding of the sources of air pollution and how air quality affects asthma rates, and also contributes to other chronic health conditions. An estimated 200,000 people die each year across the country due to lung and heart disease cased by air pollution, and increased exposure to pollutants have been linked to higher rates of COVID-19 and other serious respiratory issues.

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Leaders in the communities joining the program said they appreciate being part of it.

“As home to large environmental justice communities that house low-income residents and people of color, it is important that we understand the relationship between poor air quality and health disparities,” Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman said.

In Deerfield, Carolyn Shores Ness, a Select Board member who also chairs the Board of Health, said the information will be important.

“Having the ability to determine the amount of pollutants in the air will allow us to inform and warn our residents most affected by health problems, such as asthma,” Shores Ness said.

The air quality index can have values ranging from 0 to 500, with the lower numbers indicating better air quality. The index is divided into six categories: good, moderate, unhealthy for sensitive groups, unhealthy, very unhealthy and hazardous.

Online, the public can find an interactive map of the Pioneer Valley with live data from the monitors, with dots changing colors depending on the air quality and statements outlining health-based precautions that families and individuals should take to protect themselves.

Now in winter, the clusters on the map on Friday showed that the functioning air-quality monitors were all various shades of green, indicating the good air quality of the season.

For instance, the monitors in Holyoke, at the Conklin Furniture building in the Flats, at Holyoke Community College and at William R. Peck Middle School in the Elmwood section revealed air quality indexes of 10, 7 and 7, respectively.

And even with mixed precipitation that day, the statements attached to the green dots indicated there should be no worries for people being outdoors.

“It’s a great day to be active outside,” each of the air-quality monitors reported last Friday.

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