Amanda Northcross on Clearing DC's Air

When Assistant Professor Amanda Northcross joined the GW faculty in early 2013, one of her first steps was to ask DC-area colleagues about local air-quality issues. It didn’t take her long to find out about local activism in Ivy City, where residents concerned about high rates of asthma were fighting to prevent new air pollution from a planned intercity bus depot. Northcross soon joined a group of researchers working with the community organization Empower DC to study air pollution in Ivy City and help residents clean up their air.

“This is an issue of environmental justice,” Northcross explains. “Ivy City is a poor, majority black community with a low voting rate, and the city of DC has already sited a schoolbus parking lot there. Rates of asthma are high, and community members don’t want anything added to their neighborhood to make air quality worse than it already is.”

Residents of Ivy City, a small neighborhood in Northeast DC, hoped to see a new adult-education and job-training center at the site of the shuttered Alexander Crummell school. Instead, the lot was paved over, and residents learned that the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation planned to use it as a bus depot during the multi-year renovation of the Union Station intercity bus facilities. Neighbors don’t want more large, polluting vehicles traversing their streets every day. Empower DC filed a lawsuit against the use of the site for a bus depot, and a judge issued an injunction after determining that the community did not receive adequate notification of the plans.

At a recent DC City Council hearing on proposed legislation to improve air quality, Northcross described the experience of Ivy City residents and urged the Council to prevent the planned bus depot and revise the air-quality bills to address situations in which neighborhoods experience pollution from multiple sources.

Northcross is collaborating with researchers from the University of Maryland, Howard University, and Trinity University – all of whom have been working with Empower DC for the past two years – to measure current conditions in Ivy City. “We’ve been working very closely with neighborhood residents, because this is community-based participatory research,” explains Northcross. “We’re planning to place monitors in people’s homes, and we need their help to make sure we’re getting the data we need.”

For residents, the short-term goal is to get data supporting their belief that Ivy City air quality is worse than in other parts of the city, and that no more pollution sources should be located in their neighborhood until air quality improves. For Northcross and her fellow researchers, it’s an opportunity not only to help one community, but to advance understanding of local pollution hotspots.

“The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets air quality standards that the city of DC has to meet, and EPA has air monitors in three spots in DC to check for compliance,” says Northcross. “But those monitors aren’t necessarily reflecting what’s happening in specific neighborhoods. As we change communities, gentrify, and rebuild, how do we make sure we’re not creating new pollution hotspots, or worsening the ones that already exist?”

Northcross and her colleagues, including SPHHS Research Assistant and MPH student Matt Shupler, are currently analyzing data from air monitors that have been operating in Ivy City for the past few months. They are still in the process of modeling data, but, Northcross says, “We are getting strong indications that annual concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) and carbon black in Ivy City are higher than the current EPA standards and well above the new EPA annual air-quality standards that states must meet by 2020.”

When air pollutant levels in neighborhoods like Ivy City exceed EPA standards, Northcross says the city should take steps to reduce existing pollution or limit new sources. That could mean restricting certain kinds of vehicular traffic, changing development patterns to reduce congestion, or adding bike or transit improvements that make it easier for people to get around without cars.

Northcross and her colleagues, including Assistant Professor Royce Francis of GW’s School of Engineering and Applied Science as well as researchers from other local universities, are applying for grant funding with the goal of establishing a network of neighborhood air-quality monitors. “We’d like DC to be the forefront of air-quality research, not only to improve our understanding of local pollution variability, but to advance solutions,” Northcross says.

With her engineering background and experience helping local groups address environmental justice concerns, Northcross is developing low-cost, easy-to-use monitors that will enable more people to measure their own air quality. “We don’t want people to have to wait for government agencies to find out what’s in their air,” she explains. “The more easily people can learn about local air pollution, the more quickly they can act to clean it up.”