Sustainability Snapshot: What’s in the air? A GW-based research project aims to gather data on air quality, educate communities

Fresh Air D.C. Researcher Andrew Burwell emphasizes the importance of monitoring air quality at the local level, hopes to use information and community engagement to advocate for policy change in the future.

May 22, 2019

Andrew Burwell on roof installing air pollution monitor

When Andrew Burwell (CCAS ‘20) needed 3 more credits in the second semester of his first year of college, he enrolled in a sustainable cities course. Little did he know, it would shape his college experience and career.

After serving in the Marine Corps for eight years, Burwell came to GW to study international affairs.

“After deploying all over the world in the Marine Corps - being stationed at U.S. consulates and embassies, working with the Department of State - I thought it was a good idea to enroll in the Elliott School,” Burwell said. “I was excited to be in college but I hadn’t really figured out what I wanted to do.”

Burwell liked the interdisciplinary approach of the sustainable cities class, lead by Professor Lisa Benton-Short and a panel of professors with expertise in different areas of sustainability.

“On the first day of class, I knew that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” Burwell said. Shortly after, he registered as a sustainability minor and began filling his courseload with environmental-based energy and sustainability courses.

The political science major and history and sustainability minor is currently working on an air quality monitoring project called Fresh Air D.C. The project, which is lead by Associate Professor Royce Francis, aims to create a network of low cost air quality monitors in the District.

“Eventually, we’d like to see these air quality monitors all over the country,” Burwell said.

The GW research group’s goal is to have 37 uRAD Air Quality Monitors spread throughout different D.C. communities. The air quality monitors from Romania cost around $1,000 a piece, compared to federal regulatory monitors the EPA and federal government use, which can cost 15 to 30 times as much.

“That’s not very sustainable or replicable,” Burwell said. “There’s only 6 or 7 of these [air quality monitoring] facilities around D.C. so it’s a regional air quality monitoring system instead of a local or community-based system.”

Burwell pointed out that higher income communities tend to have nicer neighborhoods and less air pollution. A true reading of air quality among lower and higher income communities is not assessable with the limited network of air quality monitors currently in place.

“We need factual data to make policy change,” Burwell said. “By getting this air quality monitoring network setup, we can empower community leaders with the knowledge they need to make real change throughout their neighborhoods.”

Andrew Burwell holding a uRAD Air Quality Monitor  Andrew Burwell testing equipment in Kogan Plaza

Fresh Air D.C. is waiting to deploy their low-cost monitors, and plans to install the devices in the next few weeks. They’ll bring them to the Department of Energy and Environment’s River Terrace air quality site to calibrate them and verify their data and then set them up throughout D.C.

“The goal is to be able to have this network of air quality monitors and then make it so the public can get on their phone, access a website or app and see what the air quality is like in their community,” Burwell said.

The project is centered around community engagement in D.C., but Burwell is optimistic about the scalability and adaptability of the program. He noted that numerous other countries have low cost air quality monitoring systems set up already. The United States is way behind.

“There’s power in knowledge,” Burwell said. “But first, we need the data.”


Article by Emily Robinson (CCAS ‘19)