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University at Albany receives $1 million in funding for air monitoring efforts

U.S. Representative Paul Tonko, a Democrat from New York's 20th District, tours a mobile air quality monitoring lab in Albany on Monday, February 26th, 2024.
Alexander Babbie
Alexander Babbie
U.S. Representative Paul Tonko, a Democrat from New York's 20th District, tours a mobile air quality monitoring lab in Albany on Monday, February 26th, 2024.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is awarding the University at Albany $1 million to promote community air quality monitoring.

Speaking at Giffen Memorial Elementary School in Albany’s South End Monday, Congressman Paul Tonko says the two $500,000 grants will promote positive health outcomes in underserved neighborhoods throughout the state.

“The first will fund sensors at five community schools across the Capital Region, including Giffen Memorial, and use a mobile lab to provide accurate air pollution measurements. The second will support SUNY’s air quality monitoring work in underserved neighborhoods in Albany, and in Schenectady, in Cohoes and Kingston, in Poughkeepsie and Newburgh and in Harlem,” Tonko said.

Tonko, of the 20th district, says the efforts are key to environmental justice and socioeconomic equality.

“We are a stronger, richer, richer and healthier nation, when we make certain that these investments and opportunities reach everyone, regardless of ZIP code,” Tonko said.

Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan, a fellow Democrat, agrees: the time has come to right historic wrongs.

“It is so critically important that we have the resources and the partnerships to be able to make sure that we understand what is causing air quality detriments in our most challenged neighborhoods, in neighborhoods that were often left behind, abandoned and feel neglected,” Sheehan said.

Sheehan says the monitoring network builds on existing efforts, saying original concerns had focused on the potential of pollutants coming in from the Port of Albany but shifted when a collaboration with the EPA showed impacts were due to diesel-powered trucks throughout the South End.

Outgoing New York state Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos says, while progress has been made, there’s still more to do.

“You remember the smog in the 1970s, 60s, right? I mean, even I remember that, I remember how, how disgusting the skies were. And that was a reflection of the lack of progress at the time, we made that great progress, but not everyone benefited from it,” Seggos said.

EPA Regional Administrator Lisa Garcia says lower air quality has long affected disadvantaged neighborhoods.

“A lot of times when we're working on issues, as the mayor was saying, we don't know exactly where the issue or where the problem is. And so, these grants for air monitoring will help us analyze and get the data that we need to really make decisions to figure out what those solutions can be,” Garcia said.

Michelle Grimm, Dean of UAlbany’s College of Nanotechnology, Science, and Engineering, says the potential is great.

“Researchers will measure backyard and indoor air quality by installing low-cost sensors to quantify exposure to air pollutants in at least 200 homes in underserved communities across New York state, including in the Capital Region,” Grimm said.

Chris Thorncroft is Director of UAlbany’s Atmospheric Sciences Research Center. He says the mobile lab’s impact will be broader than just air monitoring.

“It will also offer hands-on STEM education opportunities for children in our region. The data results will be shared with the community leaders to increase awareness of their surrounding air quality burdens, along with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation,” Thorncroft said.

Jie Zhang is a Research Scientist with the Atmospheric Sciences Research Center. He says the mobile lab tracks gases in the air, as well as PM2.5, or fine particulate pollution.

“We’re using the mobile lab to scan street for street to gather the whole distributions of the air pollution over the communities,” Zhang said.

Zhang says the chemical compositions will clue researchers in to the source of pollutants.

A 2022 Siena College graduate, Alexander began his journalism career as a sports writer for Siena College's student paper The Promethean, and as a host for Siena's school radio station, WVCR-FM "The Saint." A Cubs fan, Alexander hosts the morning Sports Report in addition to producing Morning Edition. You can hear the sports reports over-the-air at 6:19 and 7:19 AM, and online on WAMC.org. He also speaks Spanish as a second language. To reach him, email ababbie@wamc.org, or call (518)-465-5233 x 190. You can also find him on Twitter/X: @ABabbieWAMC.