Advice for community groups interested in monitoring air quality

1. Assess current ambient air quality

Obtain all the data you can get your hands on, including EPA and industry monitoring data. This data is not always readily available and rarely up to date and integrated. It’s not difficult to organise and analyse monitoring data using MS Excel – you don’t need an expert to turn out easy-to-read tables and graphs.

 

2. Decide which pollutants you plan to focus on

In Newcastle, we focused on PM10 because there is consensus and a high level of awareness that PM10 has serious health impacts. We didn’t need to convince anyone that higher levels of PM10 would be detrimental to health. In fact, there’s no threshold below which it isn’t. Furthermore:

  • Ambient PM10 levels regularly exceed the NEPM standard for PM10 in Newcastle and the Hunter. There is an ‘advisory reporting standard’ for PM2.5 and it’s more strongly implicated than PM10 in health studies, but monitoring results generally showed PM2.5 levels well below the standard. We didn’t focus on PM1 because there’s minimal monitoring or data, and no standard.
  • The NSW Health Department had expressed concerns about existing PM10 levels and stated the view that steps need to be taken to reduce ambient concentrations.
  • The company proposing to build the fourth coal terminal acknowledges in their environmental assessment that construction and operation of the terminal will increase ambient concentrations of PM10.
  • Community surveys, including our own, showed a high level of awareness and concern about ‘coal dust’ (particle pollution).

Avoid focusing on pollutants for which there is no monitoring or regulation, minimal community awareness or a lack of consensus about health impacts.

 

3. Get good advice

In Newcastle, we established a ‘Dust and Health’ committee and recruited members with an established interest in air quality and some knowledge and/or expertise. A few members have worked in industry or universities, but we weren’t necessarily looking for experts. Let me know if you’d like to see our terms of reference. When our committee was making important decisions like which monitoring equipment to hire, where to monitor and how to interpret our results, we ensured we received expert advice. You should expect industry and government to be critical of your results, so the more robust and independent they are, the better. We were fortunate that one of Australia’s leading particle pollution experts is based in Newcastle and that he and other health experts are willing to advise us and speak out publicly.

 

Photos: Citizens doing their studies in Newcastle

 

4. Hire equipment

We obtained technical advice and did our own online research into the various types of equipment available. This turned out to be time well spent as we were challenged by an air quality consultant when we launched our report: “Why did you use Osiris?” We knew that her company had actually used the same equipment and that it was regularly used by industry and the EPA.

Cost is a major consideration, and costs aren’t always immediately apparent. In addition to the cost of hiring, we needed to factor in insurance (the equipment was left in the open over night), interstate freight and data management. There can also be hidden costs to extract the data in the right form to analyse.

 

5. Analyse results

Our monitoring equipment monitored PM10, PM2.5 and PM1 at 1 minute and 10 minute intervals, then generated 1 hour and 24 hour averages. With three sets of equipment, this meant an ocean of data. We could have analysed the results ourselves–you just need someone with a moderate skill level on MS Excel. But instead we approached the University of Newcastle and paid them to do the analysis for us. This meant that we could say the results were independently analysed by experts, and that we reduced the risk of making errors in analysis.

 

6. Communicate, communicate, communicate!

A community-led monitoring study is great news. Community members are very interested and potentially willing to donate. We made a point of communicating widely and actively about our study from the moment we decided to do it. Our first fundraising appeal specified that funds would be directed to the monitoring and we quickly raised $5,000. Journalists were very interested in the study and we generated lots of great stories. (Check out http://delicious.com/coalisover1/CTAG). We packed town hall to release our results.