Environment

Invisible pollution: Spotlight on clean air coming to Charlotte

Smokestack emitting gas

It’s all around us, but we usually can’t smell or see air pollution. A major art piece and a series of events coming to Charlotte this spring could help change that.

“Most air pollution in North Carolina is invisible,” said June Blotnick, executive director of Charlotte-based Clean Air Carolina. The group is bringing “Particle Falls” back to Charlotte, starting Feb. 28.

The art installation will run through Mar. 28, projected on the side of UNC Charlotte’s Center City building. Particle Falls is a display that’s updated in real time with data from air sensors. So, if a diesel truck goes by, you’ll see the color and pattern change to indicate higher pollution levels — a reminder of the pollution that’s there even when you don’t notice.

That’s one of the biggest issues air advocates face in Charlotte, Blotnick said. Many of the region’s other environmental problems are easier to see or feel: A shrinking tree canopy, mud and trash clogging streams, relentless summers of record heat.

“That’s always been the challenge. You can’t see it,” said Blotnick. And that invisibility can lead us to disregard the potential harms of air pollution. 

Here are some technical details from Clean Air Carolina: “Fine particulate matter (PM2.5) is a form of air pollution that occurs year-round and consists of a mixture of very small particles that are invisible to the naked eye. A typical particle can include hazardous heavy metals, air toxics, and various types of carbon which can cause significant inflammation in the human body. These particles are so small that our lungs cannot cough them out, and once in the lungs they can pass through cell membranes, enter the bloodstream, and even cross the blood-brain barrier. Exposure to fine particle pollution has been linked to a long list of serious health problems, including asthma, heart disease, stroke, and premature death.”

“Because air pollution is invisible, we often don’t appreciate how it impacts our day-to-day lives. Particle Falls allows us to see the invisible particulate pollution in the air we breathe, connecting the complexities of air quality and climate change to policymakers and the general public,” said Andrea Polli, the artist who created Particle Falls, in a statement.

In some ways, that’s a good problem to have. The region’s air quality has improved markedly since the mid-2000s, when she was hired at Clean Air Carolina. That’s largely the result of better pollution controls at coal-fired power plants, as well as more efficient cars and other light vehicles.

For perspective, Mecklenburg County saw 242 days of “green,” or good, air quality in 2018. That’s more than double the number of good-quality air days in the mid-2000s, when Mecklenburg routinely saw barely over 100 green days and the majority of the year was spent with air measured at “moderate” or unhealthy levels of pollution.

But Mecklenburg is at the borderline for meeting federal ozone concentration standards.

“We’re still right on the line. That’s not a good thing,” said Blotnick. “And the standard still is not strong enough.”

As overall air quality improves, Clean Air Carolina has been focusing on environmental justice and the disparate impact of air pollution on individual neighborhoods. For example, the group is using hyperlocal monitoring to track air quality in west Charlotte neighborhoods (which have more large air pollution sources, like industrial sites, and are close to major highways) and the more affluent neighborhoods of Dilworth and Myers Park.

Another series of events this spring will put the focus on air quality:

March 13: Panel on sustainable development featuring Peter Plastrik, co-author of Life After Carbon: The Next Global Transformation of Cities, chief planner and deputy Charlotte city manager Taiwo Jaiyeoba, and others; 6:30-8:30pm UNC Charlotte Center City, main lecture hall.

March 20: Panel on active transportation featuring Shannon Binns, Executive Director of Sustain Charlotte, Terry Lansdell, Executive Director of BikeWalk NC and others; 6:30-8:30pm UNC Charlotte Center City, main lecture hall.

March 27: Panel on environmental justice featuring professor Deb Thomas of the UNC Charlotte Department of Geography and Earth Sciences (which is one of the Particle Falls sponsors), along with the UNC Charlotte Department of Public Health Sciences, and the Urban Institute with support from the Chancellor’s Diversity Challenge Fund; 6:30-8:30pm UNC Charlotte Center City, main lecture hall.

April 9: The all-day NC BREATHE Conference returns to Charlotte. Held at UNC Charlotte’s Center City building, this conference will spotlight health and equity, the impacts of pollution and climate change. Find the details and register online here.