“It is Up to Us”: Citizen Science in Imperial County

by Frances Nicklen   |   

I have lived in the Imperial Valley, specifically the city of El Centro, since I was four years old. I have suffered through dust storms and dry spells and polluted air for fourteen years of my life – but I didn’t always know it. Before my family moved to the valley, we lived in Los Angeles where my mother worked as a teacher and community organizer and my father was a freelance interpreter. With my mom’s background in organizing, she was quickly drawn into the valley’s environmentalist community, where she stood up against the construction of a destructive paramilitary training facility and other misguided local proposals. By the time I was in sixth grade, I was showing up in newspaper reports at her side as we protested issues at local County board meetings. Through all of the time I spent with people who cared about our local environment, I learned about the many concerns that residents have about our community and its well being.

Photo above: Air quality monitor installed. Photo by Frances Nicklen

The valley has one of the highest rates of asthma hospitalizations for school aged children and has exceeded the state standard for airborne particulate matter (PM) for decades. Many schools in the valley still have not adopted the Flag Program in which a colored flag lets students and teachers know the quality of the air. For example, a green flag signals a good day to be out, and a red one means it is a bad day. This program has depended on the five air quality monitors that the Imperial County currently has. These are not enough to encompass every community in this 4,000 square mile area, and the information provided is not consistent and is often incorrect.

On a day when we cannot see the mountains because of all the pollution from pesticide spraying, field burning, car exhaust, and wind-borne dust, the county monitors often tell us that it is a good day to be out. It became apparent that the monitors are not working and are not dependable. Unfortunately the County continues approving new construction projects that are making our air quality even worse, and they do not always take into account the negative health and environmental impacts. For this reason a more widespread air monitoring network in the Valley was necessary. In early 2014 when I was a sophomore in high school, I had the opportunity to participate in a Community Air Monitoring Project as a Steering Committee Member. The purpose of the project was to set up forty additional air monitors throughout the Imperial Valley that can make data on air quality available to the public so that the community can make educated decisions about their outdoor activities.

The air monitoring project was proposed by the California Environmental Health Tracking program in partnership with Comite Civico del Valle, University of Washington, George Washington University, University of California at Berkeley, National Latino Research Center, Cal State San Marcos, and Z-Data Solutions and is funded through a grant from the National Institutes of Health. Part of this project was to create a Community Steering Committee to help with project design, implementation and decision-making, to collect data, install the air monitors, interpret the results, and disseminate the information. The resulting Air Quality Monitoring Network (AQMN) will consist of forty portable air monitors, twenty of which have been installed already. In order to identify these impacted communities, members of the Steering Committee mapped environmental hazards and community assets and discussed the placement of these monitors. To have a successful mapping activity, community members from the various cities, including several high school students, were invited to add their input on which areas are the most impacted and should be key points for the placement of the monitors. There was group discussion on each area’s pros and cons as well as the availability of someone to maintain the monitor. In this way members of the Valley are included in the decision-making process as well as taking care of the monitors and learning about how to access the information when it is made open to the public. In addition, some of the students from Southwest High School’s Leaders for Environmental Awareness and Protection (LEAP) club and Brawley High School students have become involved in spreading the word about this program and the impact it will have on the Valley.

Meeting of the Air Monitoring Project. The author is barely visible, second from the right. Photo by Anita Nicklen

Meeting of the Air Monitoring Project. The author is barely visible, second from the right. Photo by Anita Nicklen

The members of this project hope to make information readily available to the community about air quality each day in all the different regions of the Imperial Valley. Having this information as well as being able to understand it will help families to make good decisions regarding the prevention of asthma attacks and other health problems. This information will be accessible on a website that is easy to navigate as well as a phone application that allows people to quickly decide what is best for their health. When all the monitors have been installed and data has been collected, the participants will examine the data and discuss issues of concern to develop action plans for reducing exposures to pollution and improving health in this region.

We want to help reduce health problems, especially because we are a farm-worker community with some of the highest rates of poverty and unemployment in the country. Field workers are one of the most impacted groups of people due to the amount of time they spend outdoors working with pesticide sprayings, dust storms, and other health hazards. The high rate of poverty means most residents cannot afford to pay for their medical bills and hospitalizations. There have been many deaths from cancers and asthma that could have been prevented if the correct procedures were in place to help people make healthy decisions. I have a sister who has allergy attacks every time she visits the Imperial Valley. She was very fortunate to get a job in another city, but many residents do not have the option to move away. They suffer chronically and cannot do anything to prevent asthma attacks and allergies. Because of this Air Monitoring Project, residents can now make better decisions about their health based on information that will now be continuously available.

It’s Up to Us

It’s Up to Us

I am glad I have had the chance to participate in a project that will have such positive effects. We are the first ones to  undertake this kind of project in the entire world, and we hope to be an example to others so that this project can be reproduced in other areas where air quality is a problem.  I feel that many of these most polluting activities should be subject to more stringent  environmental regulation and enforcement. For example, agricultural burning is generally not permitted in most of the United States. Government agencies will now have concrete data upon which to create policy around these questions of public health which should be their primary responsibility.

Frances Nicklen has been a resident of the Imperial Valley for fourteen years and will be starting at UC Irvine in the fall with a major in Biomedical Engineering. She will miss the beautiful landscape of her home town that was a source of inspiration for her art.