Community Science Is Changing How People Can Fight Pollution

Grassroots groups are collecting their own pollution data to increase accountability and demand environmental justice. 

Plumes of smoke from an oil refinery rise behind a swing set in a children’s playground

The Valero Houston Refinery is in close proximity to a children’s playground at Hartman Park in Houston.


Scott Dalton for NRDC

Annie Lagos was recently out eating with friends when she noticed a strong chemical smell. Lagos, a Houston resident who grew up surrounded by refineries, had experienced this before. In a city that recently ranked as the sixth worst in the United States for fine particle air pollution, frontline community members like her are used to breathing in noxious fumes. But this time, Lagos could do something about it. She grabbed her phone and went to a website set up by a local group where she could report her experience.

Lagos’s regular encounters with air pollutants like particulate matter 2.5, or PM2.5 (which gets its name from its microscopic size) are mirrored by environmental justice communities across the country—and the world. These airborne pollutants can bypass defenses in our respiratory system and enter the bloodstream, where they can damage the lungs, heart, brain, and entire cardiovascular system. Globally, an estimated 4.2 million people die prematurely each year from chronic PM2.5 exposure, but low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately exposed to nearly all of its sources, from tailpipe emissions from cars and trucks to coal-burning power plants to toxic dust–spewing manufacturing facilities. 

Earlier this year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) did propose tightening a key federal limit for PM2.5—from 12 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3) down to somewhere between 9–10 µg/m3. But it’s only a partial solution, and it doesn’t meet the more health-protective limit recommended by the agency’s own Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee. 

That’s why, given the fact that millions of Americans already live in counties that don’t adequately track air quality, a wave of grassroots groups are taking pollution monitoring into their own hands. From Houston to Chicago, the following community science initiatives are empowering residents to collect their own data. The hope is that, by having people independently track pollution patterns and sources, they can better protect community health and more effectively advocate for big-picture change. 

EyeAlerta: A web-based tool to report pollution in the petrochemical capital

In the Houston area—home to the highest density of petrochemical refineries in the country and one of the busiest ports in the world—the grassroots group Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS) recently launched a pilot version of its web-based tool, EyeAlerta. Any resident can log in and easily document common signs of pollution, such as flares, black smoke, or acrid chemical smells (like what Lagos detected on her night out). People can also report symptoms, such as dizziness or difficulty breathing, and map where the incident occurred. 

TEJAS, which developed EyeAlerta in partnership with NRDC, noted the reporting tool isn’t meant to replace official channels or relieve appropriate authorities of responsibility. Rather, the organization aims to offer residents an opportunity to monitor health threats happening in their communities in real time and anonymously report them. TEJAS then plans to flag incidents to the proper authorities. It will also use the data to build a body of scientific evidence that helps shape its community education efforts and environmental advocacy. 

Aerial view of the Harrisburg/Manchester neighborhood in Houston, Texas, which is surrounded by oil industry infrastructure

John R. Harris Elementary School (foreground) is in Houston’s Harrisburg/Manchester neighborhood, which is surrounded by an oil refinery and the Houston Ship Channel.


Scott Dalton for NRDC

EyeAlerta is useful to residents because the official channels for reporting pollution are often time-consuming and confusing to navigate, says Nalleli Hidalgo, a community outreach and education liaison at TEJAS. The tool also allows community members to document concerns in Spanish or English, whereas official environmental complaint forms are only readily available in English. Any part of the process can discourage people from ever speaking up about what they see or their health symptoms. “Sometimes it’s like playing phone tag, where one representative passes you to another,” Hidalgo says. “The tool was created to make it really easy for community members to properly document the types of pollution they're experiencing. If it's not documented, it’s like it never happened.” 

Lagos, an educator, first learned about EyeAlerta at an educational community meeting in March. Seeing other reports on it that mirror her own experiences has been validating, and puts the lifetime of health issues that she’s watched her friends and family experience, like asthma and cancer, in a new light. 

“You start thinking, Oh wait, I have lived next to refineries my entire life,” Lagos says. “Flaring is a common occurrence. Every other night, the sky is orange around here, but nobody really knows that it’s something the refineries aren’t supposed to do. Once you start finding that out, you start piecing the puzzle together. Oh, that's why I get headaches when I walk outside. That's why I get dizzy at a weird time of the day. That's why we always get sick.” 

Lagos notes it’s easy to scan EyeAlerta’s QR code, which she now keeps on hand to quickly access the tool. “In 10 minutes, I reported everything I needed to report,” she says. 

Group photo of David Yeom, Tyler Cargill, Li Zhiyao, and Reverend Nick Winker standing next to an air pollution monitor mounted on a pole in front of the St. Ann Catholic Church in St. Louis, Missouri

From left: David Yeom (an intern with Washington University) and Tyler Cargill and Li Zhiyao (doctoral students with Jay Turner Lab) work with the Reverend Nick Winker to set up an air pollution monitor at St. Ann Catholic Church in St. Louis, Missouri. 


Beth Gutzler/RNS Photo

AirWatchSTL: An air-monitoring program to engage St. Louis communities 

The desire for more community control over health-related data is as necessary in Missouri as it is in Texas. 

In 2022, the faith-based organization Metropolitan Congregations United (MCU), based out of St. Louis, launched AirWatchSTL. Through this program, organizers installed PM2.5 monitors on the roofs of 14 churches across the city and now publish up-to-the-hour data online. The initiative—which was organized in collaboration with the Nature Conservancy in Missouri, the Jay Turner Group, and the environmental studies program at Washington University—aims to “fill the air quality data gap” and inform the public, environmental advocates, and scientists about which St. Louis communities are most impacted by pollution. “We want to have accountability for what’s in our air,” says Beth Gutzler, MCU’s lead environmental justice organizer. 

In addition to the 14 monitoring sites, AirWatchSTL also encourages residents to report other qualitative data—like noticeable odors and health symptoms—on days when the air quality index veers outside of the healthy “green” zone. The project’s organizers will then collect and analyze the data alongside particulate levels. 

Similar to EyeAlerta, AirWatchSTL is not meant to replace official channels for reporting, but rather helps to educate and engage the public, particularly the congregations where the air monitors were installed, about the health impacts of PM2.5. During community meetings so far, MCU advocates have talked to residents about the benefits of wearing N95 masks when they see levels of particulate matter spike, and the importance of not opening their windows in the evening when cooler temperatures and less wind can cause air pollution to accumulate closer to the ground. 

The project, which runs through June, will also help MCU and their partners better address local long-standing environmental and health inequities, like the fact that Black children in St. Louis visit the emergency room because of asthma nearly 11 times more frequently than white children. The collected data will allow advocates to pinpoint the communities most in need of protection and better identify specific pollution sources, like heavy traffic or industrial zones. 

Since the program’s launch last year, other congregations have now reached out to MCU for help installing monitors at another eight locations, outside the scope of the original grant. “People want to fill out the map,” Gutzler says.

Aerial view of MAT Asphalt and surrounding buildings, including the National Latino Education Institute

The MAT asphalt plant (center) is adjacent to the National Latino Education Institute (front left).


Karen Canales Salas for NRDC

PurpleAir Sensors: Air-monitoring data collection to create accountability in Chicago

Over in Chicago, residents living near the MAT Asphalt plant on the Southwest Side of the city can sometimes tell from just the smell when production has started up. “I’d wake up in the morning and, if we’d left the windows open, I could tell when they were running without even getting out of bed,” says Anthony Moser, who’s lived near the asphalt mixing facility since it opened in 2018. 

But residents like Moser can tell another way, too—by watching the measured levels of particulate matter climb higher and higher on nearby air pollution monitors installed by community organizers. “You can see [the plant’s operations] starting up overnight and the immediate impact it has on air quality,” he says. 

The group behind the monitors is the McKinley Park–based Neighbors for Environmental Justice (N4EJ), which Moser cofounded. He and other concerned residents have now installed nearly a dozen PurpleAir sensors across the largely working-class Southwest Side of Chicago, including one a few blocks from the MAT Asphalt facility. This popular brand of low-cost sensor measures levels of particulate matter in real time and then maps the publicly accessible data online. N4EJ uses this data to identify trends showing where and when pollution is highest and why. 

Signs saying “No MAT Asphalt” and “Stop MAT Asphalt” posted on homes in Chicago

Signs against MAT Asphalt on a home along Damen Avenue in Chicago


Karen Canales Salas for NRDC

While this data collection began as a way to track MAT Asphalt specifically, the scope of the organization’s community science work has since grown. In 2021, N4EJ helped advise on Project Eclipse, a data collection initiative organized by the midwestern-based Environmental Law & Policy Center, in partnership with Microsoft. Through the project, more than 100 pollution monitors were installed at bus stops across the city, allowing residents to scan QR codes and get real-time air quality data. 

Granular data collected around-the-clock and near specific pollution sources is often more reflective of real-world exposure than what’s collected by the EPA’s regulatory-grade sensors, which are better at capturing larger regional trends. “One thing I've learned from this is just how hyperlocalized air quality can be,” Moser says.

Of course, data alone can’t fix the problem; agencies must act on the findings. Sometimes, Moser warns, requests for more data can serve as a convenient tactic to delay action. “There are some things that the city [of Chicago] already knows—like they know where the pollution is bad, they know where the trucks are, they know where the asphalt plants are,” he says. 

But community science can empower residents to demand the larger policy shifts that get at the root causes of pollution, such as improving public health by ending racist zoning laws and demanding stricter enforcement of the environmental protections already on the books. 

“The solution was never going to be about just shutting down this one asphalt plant but about addressing these systemic problems that allow different communities to be sacrificed,” Moser says. “We’re trying to build a body of evidence around the things that are happening. It’s not a sprint. We're in it for the long haul.” 

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