Kids, Asthma, Sensors Oh My!

Transforming Local Government presenter, The City and County of Denver, explains how their Love My Air Program uses data and community partnership to create a healthier Denver.

ARTICLE | Mar 2, 2020

Walking the yellow brick road of health and air monitoring

by City and County of Denver, CO

The City and County of Denver’s Love My Air program monitors air quality at public schools in real-time and empowers communities to reduce air pollution and exposure to air pollution, with a specific focus on students with asthma.

Denver experiences the 14th-worst air quality among major U.S. cities. Denver’s traffic congestion and construction contribute to fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) pollution, which is a known asthma trigger. Minority and low-income populations are inequitably exposed to air pollution. Denver Public Schools (DPS) reports that 10.8% of their students experience asthma. Exacerbation of asthma results in hospital visits, decreased academic performance, and lost wages for parents/guardians- estimated at a cost of over $30 million annually.

Love My Air Program

 

Since 2018, the Love My Air program has begun deploying cutting edge air sensor technology to create a citywide air quality monitoring network and evidence-based health intervention program at public schools in Denver, resulting in behavior change and better-informed policy to improve health outcomes. The program, run by the City and County of Denver, in partnership with DPS, has 21 participating schools, with a goal of 40 by the end of 2021. Partner schools were selected based on asthma rates, economic indicators (such as free and reduced lunch rates), and their capacity to actively participate in the program. Each partner school receives an air quality sensor, that monitors hyper-local real-time PM2.5 pollution. Data is relayed to a webpage, DenverAQ.com, that community members can visit 24/7. This webpage is also displayed on a TV monitor inside the school.

While monitoring air quality is foundational to the project, the heart of the solution is the collaborative, culturally-appropriate and scientifically-validated approach to programming. Staff worked closely with principals, teachers, and nurses to co-developed program options, such as STEM curriculum, anti-idling campaigns, plans for high air pollution days (e.g., wildfires), asthma education, and more.

Outcome:  What happened?

Since the implementation of this program, community members are becoming active participants in decisions that impact their health and wellbeing. All participating schools are provided various educational tools to enhance their understanding of air quality impacts. School nurses are equipped with a nurse-toolkit. They use materials like bronchus models and respiratory charts in conjunction with air quality data to have conversations with students and their families around asthma care plans. School principals can use the data to make decisions on hosting indoor days in lieu of outdoor recess and P.E. when air quality is especially poor. Parents and students also reference the air quality dashboards to make decisions about behaviors like idling or exercising outdoors.

In the long term, this data will be used to influence guidelines and policies such as traffic routes around schools, prioritize construction projects, and more. Long term anticipated outcomes of the program will also include children with asthma missing fewer school days, leading to better academic outcomes, and decreased spending on healthcare costs.

Tackling air quality requires a regional approach. Many neighboring municipalities and health departments have begun efforts to replicate Love My Air, from air quality sensor deployment to community engagement.

Lessons Learned  

Community members are your greatest asset. Focus groups and one-on-one discussions with nurses, principals, teachers, parents, and students have allowed us to learn about their perceptions and beliefs. This data has been invaluable in shaping our program.

Through this process we know that each school has a unique set of circumstances; therefore, a one-size-fits-all approach was not the answer. Allowing for flexibility and encouraging innovation has been our key to success!

Air quality sensors are affordable. There are several low-cost air quality sensors on the market, that fit a variety of needs. Many elements of the program such as engagement toolkits, curriculum, and other educational tools are made public, so they are replicable by any municipality. Reach out to us to get started!

 

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