While it’s been difficult to motivate a number of people to take action or even feel concerned about climate change, some have succeeded by linking the presence of emissions and poor air quality with health issues, perhaps because that hits closer to home. The EPA, for example, has based many of its economic arguments for reining in air pollution on the millions of dollars in health care costs that can be avoided. China, where over a million people die each year due to air pollution, has certainly become the poster child of what can happen at the intersection of the two issues.
But what about here in the U.S.? Do we have cause for concern? Is anyone linking climate-disrupting fossil fuel emissions with health impacts right here at home in our families and communities?
A newly formed company called Vivergy (combines the Latin root for “life” and energy) is doing just that. Its website allows you to see what the air quality is in your town and relates it back to secondhand smoke. I was surprised to learn that in the city I call home, Rochester, New York, the air pollution level is equivalent to having a smoker living in my home three months out of the year. The site also provides tools to assess your impact and suggestions for how you can reduce it.
I spoke with Vivergy’s founder and CEO, Kevin Kononenko, a recent University of Michigan graduate, about this undertaking.
TriplePundit: What got you interested in this?
Kevin Kononenko: It is incredibly hard for the human brain to understand large-scale ecosystem change. When communicators discuss issues in terms of long timeframes, global scale and scientific units, it is super hard for people to emotionally connect on a daily basis. I wanted to find a way to bring energy issues down to the human scale — right here (wherever your community is) and right now.
Air pollution provided this opportunity since it is a much more localized phenomenon than many environmental issues, and we have an awesome monitoring network here in the United States that spits out data hourly. But that was not going to be enough, since the data is measured in micrograms per cubic meter of particulate matter. So, I did research in the field of human exposure science until I found studies that specifically compared air pollution and cigarette smoke in terms of PM2.5 (tiny particles in the air that can enter the lungs). And then people could actually connect to the data and see how it affected them and their loved ones.
3p: What is the key message you want people to know?
KK: People should know that their energy decisions affect the wellbeing of children in their community, but there are a few things you can do about it. Much like the concept of secondhand smoke, when you use dirty fuels for home energy, in your vehicle, for shipping your goods or traveling via plane, air pollution enters your community and affects the health of those around you. Children and older folks with asthma are especially sensitive.
At the same time, if you are able to reduce your use of these dirty fuels, you actually stand a chance of experiencing the positive impact of your actions. Example: In a couple cases, groups have placed air pollution monitors at schools and observed the patterns of pollution in that micro-environment over the course of the day. What they find is that pollution peaks while many parents and buses are sitting in the parking lot dropping kids off and picking kids up. So, if people are able to stop idling and carpool, they could actually see a measurable change in exposure!
3p: How will your website help?
KK: The Share My Air tool allows individuals to compare air pollution in their community to other communities across the U.S. in understandable terms (cigarette smoke), so they know what they are exposed to exactly. The main Vivergy site allows you to find your Pollution Score, which is a measure for your impact on local air pollution. After that, we can give you customized goals that allow you to reduce your Pollution Score and watch as you improve relative to community members. We also allow groups to sign up to see who can become a clean air champion within your particular group and to hold others accountable for taking action.
3p: What has been the response so far?
KK: Almost every single person has really appreciated the cigarette messaging and has been thankful that the numbers are in understandable (and occasionally shocking) terms. This is regardless of their background on air pollution science, which is very encouraging.
Now we are trying to get some groups signed up on the site, because it is no fun to fight local air pollution alone! Most parents would be very uncomfortable with their child spending 26 minutes a day in a car with a smoker, so now the question is whether we can help them act on that in ways that they feel are meaningful and reasonable. But the key is that every single parent shares this value and agrees that it may not align with the other ways they take care of their kids.
3p: How does participation take you beyond your personal contribution?
KK: One thing I am curious to learn about as the site develops and users sign up is how this changes the cultural connotation of using dirty fuels. Since the site is auto-reporting all positive actions logged, it creates a ton of reminders for each individual that others are taking action and they can too.
So, rather than just putting in LED bulbs and wondering what actually happened, you get to log that on the site, watch your score fall, and then others know that at least one person is making the transition to LED bulbs. It creates social transparency so it becomes more reasonable for all to act on local air pollution. I am very curious to see how this can influence behaviors – every action logged will serve as a reminder that these changes are possible and happening all around you.
3p: What are some of the best and worst places in the U.S. for air quality?
KK: The worst place for air quality is the Central Valley of California, including places like Fresno, Madera and Merced. It is surrounded by mountains, so air in the valley is trapped, and a combination of agricultural dust and vehicle emissions can build up there.
Some of the best places in the U.S. are in the Pacific Northwest, places like Portland and Seattle. Since it rains so frequently there, the pollution is consistently cleared and rarely accumulates to high levels.
Image credit: Vivergy