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St. Louis environmentalists to check for air pollution in communities of color

researchers church air pollution (2).jpg
Metropolitan Congregations United
The Rev. Rodrick Burton (left) and air quality monitoring researchers assess New Northside Missionary Baptist Church for a space to install air quality monitors, which will measure high levels of pollution in the area.

A coalition of churches will work with environmentalists and Washington University engineers and students to collect data on air quality in St. Louis neighborhoods with high levels of pollution.

The Turner Group research lab at Washington University will place air quality monitoring systems and outdoor air samplers at more than 12 churches beginning next month. For nine months, the systems will measure ozone levels, carbon monoxide and other pollutants.

A 2019 report by the Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic at the Washington University School of Law and the Environmental Justice Roundtable found that Black St. Louisans are at a greater environmental risk than white residents. The research suggests that most of St. Louis’ top pollutant sources are concentrated in neighborhoods of color.

“Our goal is to drive the momentum of this community with unified advocacy that will increase pressure on our target audiences — polluters, legislatures and enforcement agencies — to improve air quality standards and conditions,” said Beth Gutzler, lead environmental justice organizer at Metropolitan Congregations United.

The data at the churches will be transferred over a cellular network to a real-time database that community members will have access to.

The team also will collect samples of volatile organic compounds from the absorbed pollution. The research lab will analyze the samples to look for dozens of air toxics including benzene and toluene — hazardous air pollutants that people breathe in every day.

“Certainly, ozone is a big environmental justice issue here in St. Louis,” said Jay Turner, a Washington University engineering professor and lead researcher for the Turner Group. “Children of color have a much higher rate of asthma than the general population in St. Louis and so ozone is a risk factor for that.”

According to the Environmental Racism Report, Black children in St. Louis went to the emergency room for asthma treatments about 10 times more than white children.

For the air quality program, Metropolitan Congregations United chose churches in St. Louis included in that report. ZIP codes 63118, 63106 and 63107 were among the areas with people who have high levels of asthma.

Air quality monitoring could bring north St. Louis residents essential information, said the Rev. Rodrick Burton of the New Northside Missionary Baptist Church. He said two-thirds of his congregation has asthma or knows someone who suffers from the lung condition. Burton’s church will host air quality monitors.

Burton said environmental issues are widespread in predominantly Black neighborhoods. He hopes the data collected can help make people more aware about the air they are breathing.

Black people need to call for an end to air pollution that harms their communities, Burton said.

“I felt that we had to do something and to be an example because ironically, a lot of churches are probably already operating in this space with a lot of members who are probably activists,” Burton said. “This fight is not for any one segment of the population. This is us, too, so in addition to all the other things we're lifting up, criminal justice reform and all the different things we are dealing with, this needs to be right up there.”

Follow Andrea on Twitter: @drebjournalist

Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.

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