Oct 18, 2018
If Gabriela Azevedo’s son Sabian Flores couldn’t play soccer or tee-ball anymore, she’s not sure what he would do—or what she would do, either.
“Sports are so important to him,” the Denver mother of two says. “He loves being outside playing whatever sport is happening now. He loves it all. And having two boys, well, it’s nice to be able to send them outside to play so I can get a little bit of a break.”
The 7-year-old has to be careful outside, though. When he was less than a year old, he was diagnosed with asthma, and he has struggled with the air in Denver ever since—especially because his asthma gets worse when he’s exercising or running around and not getting as much oxygen, and even more so on top of that when the air is thick with pollution.
“Every time he got sick when he was little, he had to go to the ER because of the way he was breathing,” Azevedo, who last year moved her sons out of the Swansea neighborhood and closer to downtown to improve the quality of air Sabian is exposed to, says. “Even just a cold, he had to go to the ER. He was sick every month, or two times a month, and I didn’t know what was wrong with his lungs. Finally, they told me he has asthma, and that definitely changed how I look at the pollution and what’s in the air in this city.”
Denver families spend an average of $3,100 a year on asthma-related medical costs, or more than $30 million annually, to provide relief for the more than 11 percent of Denver Public Schools students who have been diagnosed with asthma, a serious and potentially life-threatening chronic lung disease. For those diagnosed with asthma, triggers can include particulate matter – also known as particle pollution – to chemicals or smoke in the air, all of which irritates and inflames the smooth muscle around the airways, constricting it and making it harder to breathe.
With this significant statistic in mind – numbers representing real people – the Denver Department of Public Health & Environment had a vision: A real-time, hyper-local air-quality data and programming monitor that could empower communities, families and schools to create rapid and effective responses that would limit exposure and reduce air pollution through behavior changes, advocacy and community engagement. The 2018 Mayors Challenge provided the first steps toward funding this critical and urgent mission. The competition is one of the first investments in the Bloomberg American Cities Initiative, an effort to help U.S. cities generate innovation and advance policy. On February 20, Denver was announced as one of 35 Champion Cities for the 2018 Bloomberg Mayors Challenge.
Meanwhile, not only have the solar-powered monitors been placed in stationary locations at several Denver-area schools, but more recently, Michael Ogletree, Denver Department of Public Health & Environment’s (DDPHE) Air Quality Program Manager for the City and County of Denver, visited Morgridge Academy to show them the capabilities of a portable air-quality monitor that can be used to show the differences in air quality even from one street corner to another a block away by walking around the school and recording air-quality data at a series of stops along the way.
“This could be so helpful for our students, not only the ones who have been diagnosed with asthma, but also the entire population, because we can use this to explain so many different science- and data-based concepts,” says Morgridge Academy kindergarten teacher Beth Enderle, who met with Ogletree and Robin Courtney, who teaches 6th and 7th grades at Morgridge, to see a portable air-quality monitor in action. Courtney adds, “I also think it would be a good idea for kids to understand how our environment affects the air we breathe.”
All of DDPHE’s air-quality monitors quantify and assess air pollution, measuring particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns in an effort to determine the variables that contribute to poor air quality and to better inform decisions that could alter the effects on children diagnosed with asthma. They also collect other environmental data, as well as temperature and humidity—updating once a minute—which can be used to help interpret the data from the sensors.
As Ogletree demonstrated, the portable versions of the air-quality monitors can be clipped to a belt loop or carried by hand—including by a student of any age—as it’s moved around to check air quality at any number of locations, the data for which can then be uploaded to an Android phone or a computer. The information can then be projected onto a screen or otherwise shared so that whole classrooms can participate in understanding cause and effect, as well as work on solutions, a win-win for the air—and for the next generation of scientists.
“It’s fascinating to see how we walked past people smoking, and then a corner where cars sit and idle for a long time, and then a stretch that was lined with trees, how different the levels were at each of those points,” Courtney says. “I’d be interested in finding out more about how trees and plants can help reduce the particulate matter in the air and brainstorm with the students some ways that we can do positive things to help.”
As for Sabian Flores, who takes two medications—one daily, and one when he gets short of breath as he runs around with his friends—having this kind of knowledge is power, and his mom says she is looking forward to using the air-quality data to keep him breathing easily and enjoying life.
“At the very least, if the school knows that the air is really bad one day, they can keep him from going outside and come up with another way for him to get exercise and move without taking in poor-quality air,” Azevedo says. “I’m hoping that the monitors will be installed at his new school, so that we can do things that will help him thrive. That would be perfect.”