For some air quality activists in Latin America, reducing childhood air pollution exposure recently became their number one priority.
Their key to reducing exposure: sharing air quality data and increasing air quality awareness.
“We've installed around 80 air qualitysensors in 28 cities so far,” explained Marcela Otto, a commercial engineer for the Citizen's Air Quality Network for Early Childhood: New Airs for Early Childhood (Red Ciudadana de Calidad de Aire para la Primera Infancia, or Aires Nuevos).(1)(2).
The network was founded in 2020 by two Chilean activist groups, Horizonte Ciudadano and Centro de Acción Climática PUCV, who combined resources to create the transnational, Latin America-focused citizen air quality monitoring network using AirVisual Series sensors.
Though they’ve made strides in establishing a far-flung air quality detection network, there’s still more work to be done.
According to Marcella, air pollution awareness isn’t common in Latin America. Without air quality awareness, it’s difficult for people affected by air pollution to take effective action and reduce their exposure and risk.
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Wanting to bring awareness of air quality to vulnerable children and schools, Aires Nuevo partnered with local governments, universities, and communities across Latin America. Together, they’ve installed AirVisual Series air quality monitors at school sites and public places, empowering administrators to take immediate action to improve their air quality.
Sounding alarms on Chile air quality
The Chilean-based groups supporting Aires Nuevos are well-versed in air quality health problems, sources, and mitigation approaches due to the country’s long history of air quality legislation.
Chile’s Ministry of Health first issued guidance to reduce air pollution emissions in 1961. In 1978, the first air quality surveillance network was installed at the Chagres foundry in the Valparaíso region. Major air quality legislation and policy has been enacted in following years until as recently as 2014, when the government enacted air pollutant reduction plans for the country’s major cities.
Numerous air quality sensors measure concentrations of poor air quality in Santiago and Valparaiso, Chile on February 3, 2023. Source: AirVisual.
Despite these efforts, Chile struggles with air quality issues stemming from transportation combustion, mining activities, and residential heating and cooking pollutants from wood-burning, in particular during the winter (3)(4).Winter fuel burning can be a major source of pollutants in many parts of the world.
Chilean children’s health can be particularly impacted by air pollutants created by nearby mining. According to a 2016 study published in Environmental Health, air pollution near mining communities in Chile has been associated with increased cases of asthma and rhinoconjunctivitis (5).
Among 288 rural children living within close proximity to the mines, 24 percent had asthma and 34 percent experienced rhinoconjunctivitis. The study noted that childhood asthma rates in Latin America are typically around 13 percent, far lower than the number of children living near the Chilean mines.
Air quality sensor network grows
The Aires Neuvos network of air quality sensors is extensive, with the majority of sensors placed in the southern cone nations of South America – especially in Chile and Argentina.These air quality monitoring stations have over 8,400 followers combined.
Some of those air quality monitors have helped identify some of the worst air quality in the world. In 2021, Peru had the 26th worst air quality in the world, with an average PM2.5 concentration of 29.6 micrograms per cubic meter of air (μg/m3) measured for that year.
PM2.5 is particulate matter measuring 2.5 microns or less in diameter.
Raising air quality awareness in Mexico
Aires Nuevos also works with communities outside of Chile, such as Monterrey, Mexico, to raise air quality awareness. The activist group maintains five AirVisual Series air quality monitors in the city.
Poor air quality in Monterrey, Mexico on February 3, 2023. Source: AirVisual.
To help train and prepare network participants, Professor Hortencia Ruiz of the University of Monterrey and Bernardo Aguilar from Convergence Leaders for Action taught a free, seven-week online credentialing program. The program, provided by the Universidad de Monterrey, was available to all members of the network, including teachers, principals, and employees in early childhood centers.
As in other network areas, it’s hoped that awareness will help improve air quality in Monterrey by helping schools plan for poor air quality and to encourage new policies and regulations to enforce better air quality standards.
Possible immediate actions could include closing doors and windows or avoiding going outside on days with high airborne concentrations of PM2.5, particulate matter measuring 2.5 microns or less in diameter, or ultrafine particles, particulate matter smaller than 0.1 micron in diameter.
Why is air quality important in Chile?
The 2021 World Air Quality report ranks three Chilean cities as the most polluted in South America – Angol, Coyhaique, and Padre las Casas. Out of 108 South American cities monitored, 17 of the 20 most polluted cities monitored were Chilean.
In 2021, IQAir air quality data found that Chile's annual PM2.5 concentrations averaged 21.17 μg/m3, the 40th worst in the world and the second worst among countries in the Americas.
While this figure represents a year-over-year improvement from 2019 (22.6 µg/m3) and 2018 (24.9 µg/m3) annual average concentrations, all three average PM2.5 concentrations are in the “moderate” range within WHO (World Health Organization) air quality guidelines.
It was also a worse annual average PM2.5 concentration than 2020, which was 19.3 µg/m3.
Research has shown that sustained exposure to moderate air quality can pose serious health risks for some people. According to a 2013 study published in Epidemiology, both short- and long-term exposure to PM2.5 leads to an increase in death associated with PM (6).
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Communities with publicly shared, real-time air quality monitors are finding the initiative immediately useful.
According to Marcela, “all of the stakeholders who were willingly invited to the initiative have given it a positive response."
Schools have been appreciative of the air quality monitoring resources, she says. "It has been very beneficial for the kindergarten educational community where these monitors are installed… helpful as teaching tools, for planning activities abroad, and for passing this knowledge to the rest of the public through a ‘commitment to replicate.’”