A year ago, Kingston and Bard College began monitoring the city’s air quality. The first results are now in. The initiative continues into a second year, providing data on one particular pollutant.
The initial findings after a year of monitoring through January show that air pollution is relatively low. The Kingston Air Quality Initiative measures fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, from the roof of the Andy Murphy Neighborhood Center in midtown Kingston. Kingston Mayor Steve Noble:
“I take away that our air quality here in Kingston is good, and I think that that’s good news,” says Noble. “In general, we met most of the air quality standards, but, one of the things that it brings to everyone’s attention is that even during the year of 2020, where many people were off the road, and we still have impacts from the burning of fossil fuels right here in our local communities.”
Monitoring over one year found that levels of PM2.5 do vary.
“What we identified with our partners at Bard, was that very small particulate matter, from burning of fossil fuels, everything from our transportation corridor here along Broadway to burning fuels in our homes can produce unhealthy air quality, and we did see that happen a few times during the last year,” Noble says.
PM2.5 levels surpassed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency threshold of 35 micrograms per meters cubed (35 ug/m3) one day — in February 2020. Elias Dueker is director of the Center for the Study of Land, Air and Water and associate professor of Environmental and Urban Studies at Bard College. He says levels did cross another threshold during some of the colder days.
“In many cases, they do cross a threshold that was promoted by the World Health Organization, which was 20 micrograms per meters cubed, which is much less than what our EPA has been using. And we do cross that threshold in February several times,” Dueker says. “And I think it’s in indicator that we need to be careful. During those times, we’re burning a lot of oil, there are folks that are doing wood burning in their house and outside, and we to be careful about how much particulate matter we’re putting in the air.”
With Kingston High School nearby, and fewer students attending school in person, there were fewer bus trips and parents dropping off their kids, which may account for some lower levels, but Dueker says more monitoring is needed.
“I think the important thing to keep in mind about this is that it’s only one year. It’s the first ever air quality monitoring that’s happened in Kingston proper,” says Dueker. “And since we only have one year, while I am sure there were some effects on air quality and some decreases in particulate matter because of the decrease in driving and other activity, we won’t know until we have another year to compare it to.”
Dueker says more attention should be focused on air quality in the Hudson Valley as well as on environmental justice.
“Exposure to bad air quality, even small amounts of exposure to bad air quality, can really increase vulnerability to COVID-19,” Dueker says. “And we’ve learned, in devastating ways, that communities that have been subject to chronic exposure to, say, bus diesel exhaust, wood burning, fuel, fuel-related particulate, those communities have been hardest hit by COVID-19.”
When fine particulate matter is inhaled, it can enter the bloodstream through the lungs, creating or exacerbating health issues. Meantime, Noble hopes to expand monitoring locations to better understand exposures to PM2.5 elsewhere in Kingston.
“So for me it draws, I think, attention to the fact that we need to continue to do everything that we can to move to move to renewable energy sources because it’ll be better for our air quality and that we also just need more data,” says Noble. “We used one location here in midtown Kingston but we’d like to be able to expand to other areas of Kingston to really get a local understanding of how air quality changes from neighborhood to neighborhood and from time of year to other times of year.”
Dueker says expanding the monitoring to gauge the air pollution from traffic and fuel burning would be instructive.
“Fuel burning is natural gas, oil but, in the instance of Kingston, I think one of the main things that we need to take a look at is the influence wood burning, both in homes and outside of homes, because we are in a valley and the entire Hudson Valley, this is an issue when there’s an inversion, when there’s literally the atmosphere changes so that there’s kind of a cap over small towns and cities that does not allow air to rise,” Dueker says.
He says that when particulate matter stays at ground level, it can substantially degrade air quality. While tracking PM2.5, the Kingston Air Quality Initiative monitor was also able to track Kingston-wide events like the air-cleansing action of rain and the real-time decreases in air quality associated with temperature inversions in the Hudson Valley. You can see these findings on the city website.