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Curious about your community’s air quality? EPA to loan out pollution sensors in Virginia

An aerial view of the Norfolk Southern rail yard at Lambert’s Point in March 2022. (Image: Kyle Little via Shutterstock)
An aerial view of the Norfolk Southern rail yard at Lambert’s Point in March 2022. (Image: Kyle Little via Shutterstock)

Anyone who wants to assess their local air quality can soon apply to borrow a sensor from the Environmental Protection Agency.

The agency’s Region 3, which includes Virginia, is launching the air sensor loan program using $99,000 from the American Rescue Plan.

It’s meant for small, highly localized air monitoring projects by community groups, educators, state and local organizations, tribes or just interested individuals. 

Lori Hyden, a regional representative with the EPA, said almost 220 devices will be available. 

Most are PurpleAir sensors, about the size of your hand, which measure fine particulate matter — a mix of solid and liquid particles in the air that can cause cardiac and lung-related health issues.

That includes coal dust, which is a longstanding concern for communities in Hampton Roads. 

Virginia officials have begun studying air quality in Norfolk’s Lambert’s Point and Southeast Newport News, both historically Black neighborhoods that sit alongside coal terminals. That followed years of pleas from residents who complain of illnesses stemming from coal dust.

A few other available sensors, called Cairsens, can measure nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and non-methane volatile organic compounds, all of which can damage people’s health.

Hyden said she thinks everyone should know and understand their local air quality. But the agency doesn’t have the resources to monitor all corners of the region.

“If people have concerns, they can put these sensors out and take a look at what they're being exposed to,” she said. 

That could also influence daily behavior, she said. Someone with certain health issues, for example, could avoid going outside on days or times of day found to have particularly high pollution.

EPA scientist Meighan Long said the agency hopes to reach areas that may have previously been overlooked.

“The purpose is to kind of break a barrier for marginalized communities and maybe underserved communities who might not have the funds to go out and purchase their own equipment,” Long said.

So what happens if someone finds concerningly high pollution with a sensor? Hyden said the EPA would connect them to a local or state organization.

You can learn more about the loan program and how to apply on the EPA’s website.

Katherine is WHRO’s climate and environment reporter. She came to WHRO from the Virginian-Pilot in 2022. Katherine is a California native who now lives in Norfolk and welcomes book recommendations, fun science facts and of course interesting environmental news.

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