Local researchers help establish and install air quality sensors

Nov. 14—When smoke from Canadian wildfires impacted the area in June, nearly half of the counties in the state, including, Chenango, Delaware, Otsego and Schoharie, lacked the tools to determine what the true air quality was.

Now, thanks to a partnership between the Department of Public and Ecosystem Health in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University and Cornell Cooperative Extension, the installation of PurpleAir Flex air-quality sensors is nearly complete, a media release said.

Alistair Hayden, a Cornell researcher and assistant professor of practice in the department, said when the wildfire smoke hit the state he received questions from partners around the state. The department tackles emerging environmental threats that involve the interdependent health of people, animals and ecosystems, the release said.

"In talking to officials from around the state, it quickly bubbled up that many upstate communities had no data about their air quality," Hayden said in the release. "Smoke and population health was a concern, and we found that 28 of New York's 62 counties did not have a single air-quality sensor able to detect fine particulate matter of at least 2.5 microns (PM2.5), which is the main component of wildfire smoke."

Hayden formed a task force that included Gen Meredith, professor of practice in the Department of Public and Ecosystem Health; Corinna Noel, assistant professor of practice in Public and Ecosystem Health; Keith Tidball, assistant director of CCE and a senior extension associate; and Adam Hughes, state extension specialist, CCE.

The state Association for County Health Organizations and CCE helped install the air-quality sensors purchased with funding by the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability, the release said. The sensors are linked to the Environmental Protection Agency's Fire and Smoke Map. Now, officials in the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the state Department of Health, as well as policymakers, researchers and the public, can access air-quality data in real time for many more communities.

Wildfire smoke can be deadly, Hayden said in the release, and its impact is not felt equally by all groups. "Current estimates are that over 6,000 deaths that occur each year are due to wildfire smoke," he said. "People who work outdoors — or are unsheltered or living in drafty housing — are highly exposed. Those with the highest risk of death or major health impacts include children, older adults and those with diabetes and heart disease."

Tidball said in the release that the national-level Extension Disaster Education Network, or EDEN, is an important part of the land-grant system and mission, as it helps to communicate critical information during natural disasters.

"The next time we have wildfires and smoke — and it will happen again — all of us will be very glad that these sensors are in place," Tidball said in the release. "Now, we'll get more localized, tangible, complete and readily accessible information."