Kieshaun White is doing something not even the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District does.
The 18-year-old Cambridge High School student is in the early stages of setting up PurpleAir air quality monitors on Fresno Unified high school campuses, funded by grant money.
By early next year, he plans to launch a mobile app that will monitor in real time the air quality index on each campus where there’s a monitor.
“I’m letting my community know about the air quality they live in and the long-term health effects of living in bad air,” he said recently while configuring an air monitor on the campus of Phoenix Secondary Academy in southeast Fresno.
The school district uses the air district’s real-time air advisory network to make decisions about outdoor activities for students. The air district’s real-time system monitors air pollution at three locations in Fresno — but two of them only measure ozone.
The air district’s system updates each hour, reporting an average number of pollution measured over the hour.
White plans to place monitors at as many high schools as possible, and his monitors will measure particulate matter and produce an air quality index. Combined with his mobile app, students and school staff will have access to accurate, real-time air quality information at the school site.
“We’ve always felt, in the work we do with schools and residents who suffer from chronic respiratory conditions, getting these monitors out in people’s homes and in schools is critical,” said Kevin Hamilton, the CEO of the Central California Asthma Collaborative.
Hamilton said White’s project falls in line with Assembly Bill 617, which directs the state air board and local air districts to set up air monitoring systems at the community level. The air district is in the early stages of setting up a neighborhood-level monitoring system.
“We’re really excited about this project,” he said. “This is where it’s at.”
White’s project on air quality, which he calls Healthy Fresno Air, began last year. But air quality has weighed on him for most of his life.
“When I was around 10 or 11, I got diagnosed with asthma,” he said. “Having asthma, I was limited. There were a lot of things I couldn’t do. I tried to stay active, but it’s hard when you can’t breathe very well.”
His inhaler doesn’t help much.
“I thought I got better over time, but I started wheezing during a competitive hooping game and damn near died,” he said.
White took on the project through the Boys and Men of Color group, which recently was awarded $50,000 by former President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative. He worked on the project with his mentor, Marcel Woodruff. White also created a website and YouTube videos that make the complicated subject of air quality easy to understand, and he posts updates and air pollution articles to a related Facebook page.
From October to December, White monitored air quality, looking for two different kinds of particulate matter, volatile organic compounds called TVOCs, and carbon dioxide. He compared data from four different parts of the city: northwest, northeast, southwest and southeast.
When he analyzed the data, it showed air pollution was four times worse in southwest Fresno than northeast Fresno. Those findings weren’t surprising, White said.
“Growing up in southwest Fresno, compared to other parts of the city, it’s been left out for the most part,” he said.
Woodruff described how a few of the air tests went.
Once, at Dickey Playground, the air monitor returned a reading so unhealthy, White’s first reaction was to cover his mouth with his shirt. Another time at Malaga Elementary, the monitor spiked from an unhealthy reading to hazardous when a train passed the school.
“He was like, man, the kids have to breathe that air every day,” Woodruff said about White. “So, to watch him process this, as he’s seeing that the air we’re breathing is really toxic for us and bad for us, and how he’s had to digest that and interpret it has been really interesting.”
In November, White shared his findings with health professionals from across the country at the American Public Health Association annual meeting and expo in San Diego. While there, White learned about research and health projects around the country that tied into his work on air quality.
DeWaun Robinson, who does multimedia work for the University of Michigan’s Community-Based Public Health Caucus, compared White’s air quality research to the water crisis in Flint, Mich. He said in both instances, communities of color are affected the most.
Robinson is expanding an APHA youth council, in which White will take part, to have a bigger presence at the expo.
“We really want to focus on what the younger, next generation looks like,” Robinson said. “We want to get them started early in their careers. …We want to make sure and have them at the table. They have grand ideas, and we want to make sure they have a voice.”
Once White’s mobile app is up and running, he plans to recruit students from each school site to join a work-study project to maintain the app. It’s his way of giving back.
He hopes his research and work will arm his neighbors in southwest Fresno with information and spark a call for a solution so that future Fresnans will breathe cleaner air.
“It’s too late for us,” he said. “We need to fix it and improve it for the next generation.”