The white Toyota Prius looks like many of the vehicles in Houston’s municipal fleet. What distinguishes it is the equipment attached to its roof – an advanced sensor with connected vehicle technology that could allow the city to map air pollution block by block.
The idea is to generate street-level data that can help policy makers, companies, and scientists to identify where the pollution is greatest and tailor solutions that protect people’s health.
The project from the Houston Health Department, Environmental Defense Fund and telematics provider Geotab is just one example of how innovation can drive changes that produce clean air every day for everyone in the region.
Over the coming weeks, One Breath Partnership will use a new hashtag, #DataDrives, to highlight local efforts to solve environmental problems through technological breakthroughs, smart policy and new ways to communicate and collaborate. Here are some of the stories we will share:
- Through the Neighborhood Witness website, people can receive alerts about illegal pollution releases near where they live, work, and play – and then report the violations to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for enforcement action.
- Air Alliance Houston and Public Citizen are developing mapping tools that can inform people about applications for pollution permits, unauthorized emissions releases and other environmental threats near them.
- By analyzing data, the Environmental Integrity Project and Environmental Texas found that TCEQ penalized only 3 percent of illegal pollution releases statewide between 2011 and 2016. Those illegal releases contribute at least $150 million a year in health costs, Indiana University concluded in a follow-up report.
- In the days after Hurricane Harvey, the city of Houston teamed with EDF, Air Alliance Houston, and Entanglement Technologies to deploy a van equipped with sensor technology and a laboratory-grade analyzer. The mobile unit detected alarmingly high concentrations of cancer-causing benzene in the southeast Houston neighborhood of Manchester, with the likely source being a leak at the storm-damaged Valero refinery nearby. Since then, the Houston Health Department has purchased two units to take measurements throughout the city.
This work comes at a crucial time. Air pollution remains a problem in Houston, and it is bad for people’s health. Despite hard-won improvements in air quality over the past 20 years, progress has stalled. In 2018 alone, there have been 30 days with unhealthy levels of ground-level ozone, or smog. On many days, the region’s air also contains other harmful pollutants, like benzene, a gasoline byproduct.
Meanwhile, the way the federal and state governments track and measure air pollution is outdated and inadequate. Typically, the Environmental Protection Agency and TCEQ collect pollution data by stationary monitors that are often spaced miles apart. We now know that air pollution can vary by as much as eight times within one city block, and living in the hotspot can increase the risk of heart disease and death in the elderly by 40 percent – as bad as a history of smoking.
“If somebody asks me how many fixed site monitors we need, I would say there is never enough,” said Loren Raun, the Houston Health Department’s chief environmental officer.
As the early returns from Houston’s fleet show, there is tremendous potential for improving air quality through mobile sensors. When mounted to vehicles, these technologies can turn cars, trucks, and buses into rolling eyes and ears of a city, collecting data at an unprecedented scale. EDF and Geotab found that it takes only 10 to 20 vehicles to map most of a city.
“Real-time mobile monitoring will change the playing field,” Raun said.
Ideally, these data-driven insights will inspire action. Maybe then, Houstonians can breathe easier.