Equipping Students To Monitor and Improve Their Local Air Quality

By Joni Nofchissey

I live and work in Shiprock, New Mexico, on the Navajo Reservation. It’s a rural place, far away from any big city, and yet, despite the community’s rural setting, the rates of asthma and pulmonary diseases are comparable to those found in highly populated urban areas. In fact, Shiprock Indian Health Service Center sees five times the number of children with upper respiratory health problems than other centers on the Navajo Nation.

Surrounding Shiprock are two large coal-fired power plants and thousands of natural gas wells, each with a diesel engine. During the winter, air pollution is highly visible because thermal inversions trap particulate matter and smog near the ground. You can see this smog, and it’s only made worse by the use of wood and coal stoves in residential homes, which many students at Diné College and families in Navajo Nation depend on for warmth and cooking.

Last year, I co-led an EPA Tribal ecoAmbassadors project with some Diné College professors, staff, and several groups of students to collect and analyze air quality samples collected by M-PODs part of the Mobile Air Quality Sensing System (MAQS)—devices you can wear that collect data on five gases, one of which is nitrogen dioxide (NO2). NO2 is produced when natural gas or other fuels undergo incomplete combustion. One of the very useful and fun applications of the MAQS was the Android application and website interactive user-faces developed by University of Colorado Boulder.

At the end of the project, three classes of students were able to use advanced air quality sampling technology to collect and assess the air quality in the Shiprock area, as well as in their homes and schools. What they found was that each of the residences tested exceeded the recommended healthy levels of 0.05 parts per million of NO2 for the sampling period. Further testing showed high levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in homes. According to the department of health guidelines for indoor air quality, the recommended range of CO2 concentration indoors is 600–1000 parts per million. In one of the homes tested, the readings were more than five times the maximum recommended healthy range.

While these findings were troubling, I wouldn’t say they were necessarily surprising. Going into the project, we knew there were concerns—we just needed a “from the ground up” way to assess the degree of indoor and outdoor air pollution Shiprock residents faced. Now that a group of Diné students and professors have the ability to do this, we’re placing the emphasis on continued monitoring, awareness, and low-tech solutions like proper ventilation and safe wood-burning practices. To create a greater awareness of the issue, each student shared the results of the data with their families and communities through poster sessions and presentations. Diné College also strengthened partnerships with University of Colorado-Boulder, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and surrounding air quality labs, where students now have access to all kinds of data.

My students even provided insight to the developers of the M-POD and MAQS technology on how to improve the air quality monitors—and stressed the importance of exploring alternative heating sources (such as solar, wind, and biomass) to improve residential air quality in the northern regions of the Navajo reservation in and around Shiprock.

This year, I’m delighted to co-lead a second-year Tribal ecoAmbassador project that will result in a curriculum using these air quality monitoring tools to relate carbon emissions to climate change. DEI Spring interns have been able to use particulate counters “Dust Tracs” to measure levels of 2.5 μ particulate matter (PM2.5) in their families home to create discussion on occupant behavior and PM2.5 levels. In addition to looking at indoor heating behaviors effects on PM2.5 levels, interns also assisted in assessing ambient CO2 levels with readings collected by the Autonomous Inexpensive Robust CO2 Analyzer (AIRCOA) developed and maintained by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). We’re sharing the results through college classroom presentations, college science labs, K-12 hands-on workshops, professional conferences, and community hands-on workshops/seminars/presentations. Something I’ve learned over the last two years is that you can collect all the data in the world, but you’ll never get anywhere on a problem like air quality without the involvement and support of your local community.

I am very excited to start our summer internship which includes two weeks of intensive air quality studies in July with six DEI interns and DEI staff as well. The eight week internship pertaining to environmental science will end with a series of workshops and presentations to community members and K-12 students. The interns will also be very instrumental in providing insight to a meeting regarding another DEI project, the Indoor Stove Coal Use Project.

 About the author: Joni Nofchissey serves as the Environmental Technician of Diné College – Shiprock Campus, Diné Environmental Institute (DEI).  As the co-lead of the Diné College Tribal ecoAmbassador project, she helps interns design studies and analyze data collected with a stationary carbon dioxide monitor developed and maintained by the National Center for Atmospheric Research.