How clean is Grand Rapids’ air? It depends on where you live

Grand Rapids

The Grand River in downtown Grand Rapids, Mich. (Spring 2020)

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A pilot program tracking air quality in Grand Rapids neighborhoods hopes to share its real-time findings with the community next month.

JustAir co-founder and CEO Darren Riley told the Downtown Development Authority Wednesday that his company plans to roll out its community dashboard in December. The site will provide real-time air quality information. Residents will also eventually be able to get air quality alerts and share concerns via text message, which will be funneled through to Downtown Grand Rapids Inc.

“The real goal here is to protect the 20,000 breaths that a person takes on a given day. The real issue there is that… where those breaths are actually taken is a large determine(r) into the healthy outcomes of a person’s life. The real issue here is that the many communities that are often underserved or over-indexed for air pollution, those 20,000 breaths could actually be working against their lives,” Riley told the DDA.

Riley said the economic impact of this health issue is also “huge,” costing $600 billion a year in missed school days, workplace absences and losses from premature deaths, according to researchers.

Before this pilot project, Grand Rapids had just one U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sensor north of downtown, collecting air quality information once a day. JustAir’s network of sensors collects real-time hourly data.

“So DGRI and the city of Grand Rapids is really in front of the curve when it comes to some of this work,” said Riley.

JustAir has deployed five air sensors and one ozone monitor in Grand Rapids thanks to a sponsorship by Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. and support by respective neighborhood groups. Riley said they’re in talks to potentially expand the program to the Creston and Madison neighborhoods.

“We don’t enter a community without a buy-in from that community,” he said.

The five sensors record temperature, humidity, nitrogen dioxide and two levels of particle pollution. Riley said the program has more than 90,000 air quality data points.

Riley said health care data can hint to air quality disparities: Places with more people hospitalized for asthma tend to have higher air pollution.

JustAir has collected five months of air quality data so far and “what we thought to be true we now know to be true,” Riley said.

Graphs Riley presented during the DDA meeting showed more unhealthy air quality measurements at Southwest Community Campus when compared to the Sixth Street Park sensor just a few miles away. However, Riley told News 8 he cannot provide definitive trends in the city’s air quality at this time because he’s still analyzing historical data.

(Graphs JustAir presented during the Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority meeting in November 2021 shows some air quality data collected by its sensors installed earlier this year.)

JustAir plans to go beyond providing air quality data. Riley said his company wants to collaborate with area health systems to communicate with community about bad air quality. JustAir also hopes to work with city to influence policies about landfill use, trucking and other air pollutants, as well as informing families so they can protect and advocate for themselves.

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