Real Time Monitoring: A Game-Changer for Industrial Fence Line Communities

by Eduardo (Jay) Olaguer, PhD

I often hear people say they would like better tools to measure air pollution, especially in industrial fence line communities where environmental justice issues are paramount. The good news is that the capabilities are already here!

The techniques for detecting air toxics hot spots are not as developed as those used for studying ozone.  Conventional technologies (such as summa canisters, adsorption cartridges, and limited networks of stationary automated gas chromatographs) are like the traditional land lines compared to state-of-the-art capabilities which are more like today’s smart phones. New methods enable us not only to monitor ambient, or background, levels of air pollution in real time with tremendous accuracy, but they also link the often surprisingly large concentration peaks to specific emission points (such as individual flares or a small group of storage tanks) in industrial facilities.  While conventional tools bring a level of sophistication and improved accuracy to community air toxics monitoring efforts, the newer technologies enable communities to precisely quantify the transient emissions associated with industrial releases, all while operating outside facility fence lines!


Earlier this year, the Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC) led a multi-institution research campaign in three Houston Ship Channel communities with long histories of air pollution issues – Manchester, Milby Park, and Galena Park – to shed new light on those questions. These communities were chosen because they are located in the immediate vicinity of petrochemical facilities, including a major refinery, a rubber processing plant, several storage tank farms, crude oil and refined product pipelines, and rail yards and marine docks where chemical products are routinely loaded and unloaded, not to mention a large amount of truck traffic.

Our field experiment, known as the Benzene and other Toxics Exposure (BEE-TEX) Study, is very different from air pollution studies in the past.  The study focused on the development and demonstration of updated methods for real time monitoring and modeling of health-threatening air contaminants and air quality at the neighborhood level.  HARC and its partner research institutions, including UCLA, the University of North Carolina, and Aerodyne Research, Inc., applied the latest real time monitoring and modeling techniques to the measurement and attribution of ambient exposure to air toxics, such as the notorious carcinogen benzene.  The ultimate goal of the project is to help improve air quality and public health in those and other near-industry neighborhoods.

At Manchester, we deployed computer-aided tomography (CAT) scans (just like in medicine) to map toxic pollution around the clock throughout the neighborhood. Air quality CAT scans were complemented by real-time mobile monitoring outside industrial fence lines with immediate, real-time broadcasts of ambient measurement data over the Internet, followed by source attribution and quantification of transient emission events within an hour of field measurements. In addition, cultured human lung cells were exposed to ambient pollution so that the release of cell proteins and enzymes in response to air pollution, as well as the accompanying genetic response, could be measured.

Community engagement with local community residents was an essential part of the project, which included explanations of the science and tours of experimental sites and facilities. To better enable local residents and other stakeholders to understand the aims and objectives of BEE-TEX, a project website  was developed that includes, among other things, an interactive map of the study site where you can click on individual storage tanks and other industrial emission points and see what emissions are reported to the EPA by local petrochemical facilities.  Check out this video that explains what the BEE-TEX field study is all about.

The ability to have technology that can monitor around the clock, 24/7, 365 days a year, coupled with the ability to pinpoint the location of sources of that may be responsible for the peaks in pollution that we see, is a total game changer in terms of what people can do to protect the health of communities living in close proximity to facilities.  The ability to adaptively deploy mobile resources in response to real time information on the Internet enabled us to discover some surprising industrial emissions. But that is the subject of another story sometime in the near future, after the field study data analysis has been completed and subjected to rigorous peer review.

About the Author: Dr. Eduardo (Jay) Olaguer is the Director of the Air Quality Science Program at HARC, and the lead scientist of the BEE-TEX field study.