Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences
Friday, October 13, 2023

Video: CIRES researchers tackle air quality from the streets of New York

A summer spent measuring air pollutants at street level promises to show how air quality varies among New York City neighborhoods

Three women walking under construction scaffolding on a city street
Isabella Vicenza, Yoshira Ornelas Van Horne, and Audrey Gaudel walk the streets of the South Bronx collecting air quality data.
- Lauren Lipuma

CIRES scientist Audrey Gaudel partnered with researchers in New York City this summer to take detailed readings of air pollutants at street level, an effort the team hopes will provide residents of New York with the tools they need to fight for better air. 

Gaudel, a research scientist working in NOAA’s Chemical Sciences Laboratory, led the pilot project to map two air pollutants in the city: ozone and fine particulate matter. Ozone is a pollutant at ground level that forms when other pollutants react with sunlight. Fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5, consists of particles smaller than 2.5 microns in diameter. These particles are 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair and can penetrate deeply into human lungs. 

Gaudel and her colleagues took to the streets in July and August to map differences in ozone and PM2.5 among New York’s neighborhoods, paying particular attention to areas of the city known to have poor air quality. They carried with them a backpack outfitted with several instruments that took air quality measurements as they walked. 

Their project is part of a larger NOAA effort to study air quality in major cities around the country. Their measurements on the ground will help validate air quality readings taken above New York by plane. But the project will also help answer some environmental justice questions and give residents of New York more detailed information about the air they breathe. 

Air quality varies greatly between different New York City neighborhoods, and some places, like the South Bronx, are overburdened by air pollution. 

“This area in the South Bronx has some of the worst air pollution in New York City and has been nicknamed Asthma Alley,” said Yoshira Ornelas Van Horne, an assistant professor at Columbia University and one of Gaudel’s colleagues. “So with this project, we’re hoping to observe and get better-quality data for them.” 

Gaudel’s team walked through neighborhoods in Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Queens this summer, completing roughly 30 walks in 22 days. They’re now beginning to analyze the data and Gaudel has already gotten some insights into New York’s air. 

Preliminary results show that along the Hudson River and in Central Park, the largest green space in Manhattan, the air is less polluted with particulate matter than in places without trees or grass. But along the Hudson, the air is actually more polluted in terms of ozone. 

“We hope our project will provide residents of New York City with the resources they need to advocate for better air quality,” Gaudel said. 


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