A Virginia Commonwealth University researcher who helped to develop the first ground-based heat vulnerability map of Richmond, Virginia, has a new target: air pollution hot spots.
In 2017, chemical and life science engineering professor Stephen S. Fong, Ph.D. led a group of students and volunteers to find out exactly where the city’s highest temperatures were during a heat wave.
With collaborators including the Science Museum of Virginia, the University of Richmond and numerous volunteers from various Richmond-based organizations, researchers this month are working to generate additional layers for that map showing measurements of two forms of air pollution: particulate matter — tiny pieces of soot and other contamination — and ozone.
Ground-level ozone, or smog, is formed when sunlight interacts with other pollutants (nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds) that are released into the air from industrial plants and motor vehicles. A lung irritant, ozone is associated with respiratory problems.
On a recent sweltering day, Fong was among many volunteers who fanned out across the city at 6 a.m., 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. to collect local readings for temperature, particulate matter and ozone. “This is the first trial run of ozone measurements like this,” Fong said.
Fong said he would expect areas such as busy roadways with diesel trucks to have higher levels of ozone. “Neighborhood to neighborhood variation is so important,” he said. “We don’t really know for certain how much variation there is — is it actually affecting people’s health from one location to another?”
The ground-breaking efforts to develop the award-winning heat map that demonstrated the urban heat island effect with details down to the neighborhood and street level, gained national attention in discussions about the hottest parts of cities in modern times and the legacy of redlining policies.
To better understand what, in addition to extreme heat, may be impacting the health of residents in various neighborhoods, VCU and others have begun measuring air quality.
The effects of seemingly minor increases in air pollution are multiplied because of their cumulative effect. Scientists have seen an increase in cognitive decline in people who live in areas where they have prolonged exposure to particulate matter, for instance. Fong said, “There's growing evidence that long-term exposure to elevated levels of air pollutants can lead to noticeable cognitive impairment.”