Space – NASA to study sugar cane burning air pollution in the Florida Glades
A division of NASA dedicated to air quality research is partnering with a team of scientists to study the impacts of sugar cane burning in western Palm Beach County, an undertaking spurred by Palm Beach Post and ProPublica reporting on air monitoring gaps in rural, sugar-growing communities.
Researchers, bolstered by a $218,000 grant from NASA, will use low-cost sensors and satellite data to track pollution from burning sugar cane crops, a winter-to-spring harvest practice used across the 400,000 acres of cane fields in Florida’s heartland. The study is poised to be the most comprehensive of its kind in Florida’s sugar region, where some residents complain that burning harms their health.
Read the investigation:The smoke comes every year. The sugar companies say the air is safe.
More:Sugar companies said our investigation is flawed, biased. Let’s dive into why that’s not true.
More:What are the Glades? World-renowned, tiny cities that grew out of muck
Sheryl Magzamen, a Colorado State University professor who specializes in air quality and health, submitted the research proposal to NASA in June, after speaking with The Post and ProPublica over the course of a year. Magzamen was one of six academics who advised the news organizations as they placed air sensors in the Glades to track pollution.
Air quality from cane burning: ‘Why isn’t anyone looking at this?’
“We saw the situation and said:’ Why isn’t anyone looking at this?’” Magzamen said about the grant proposal.
The sugar industry has long denied that cane burning causes major pollution or health problems, saying a government-run air monitor in Belle Glade shows the area is in compliance with the Clean Air Act, the landmark 1970 law aimed at protecting the public from harmful pollution.
But as The Post and ProPublica reported this month, the state and federal framework for tracking air quality has failed to capture short-term spikes in pollution, a defining feature of Florida’s cane harvest season. The EPA requires air monitoring agencies to report levels of particulate matter — or PM2.5, a mixture of tiny air pollutants linked to lung and heart disease — using 24-hour and annual averages, which can obscure short-term spikes in pollution. The Post and ProPublica’s sensors captured such spikes in pollution in the Glades on days when state officials authorized cane burning and projected that the smoke would blow toward the sensors, a Post/ProPublica data analysis found.
Sugar companies criticize use of low-cost air pollution sensors
U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals, the region’s largest sugar producers, criticized The Post and ProPublica’s decision to use Utah-based PurpleAir sensors, which aren’t as precise as the regulatory monitors operated by government agencies. Though they are not used for Clean Air Act enforcement, they can gauge real-time changes in air pollution and their readings can be corrected using an EPA formula. In fact, the EPA uses PurpleAir sensors as part of a loan program across the Midwest, in tribal communities and in California to get a more detailed picture of air quality.
Across 400,000 acres of cane fields, state and local officials operate just one air monitor in Belle Glade. But, as The Post and ProPublica reported, state officials flagged the monitor in 2013 for failing to meet the EPA’s quality standards after it produced suspect pollution readings. The state kept operating the monitor for at least eight more years. After The Post and ProPublica pressed state environmental officials about the monitor, they said the monitor would be replaced, with a state report indicating the replacement was expected this month.
Magzamen’s proposal sought to expand on The Post and ProPublica’s findings by placing up to 45 sensors in the community. The team will use the same model of PurpleAir sensors that The Post and ProPublica bought and deployed in the community to track particulate matter. A larger fleet of sensors will allow researchers to collect more data and track pollution across the region, Magzamen said. The team will fuse sensor data with NASA’s satellite monitoring data, which can detect fire and smoke in areas devoid of ground-level air monitors.
NASA’s air quality monitoring
Satellites can help fill gaps in air quality monitoring and research “to solve real-world public health and air quality problems,” according to NASA’s Health and Air Quality Applied Sciences Team, the division of the federal agency that awarded the cane-burning research grant.
Some of the grant funding will go toward engaging local residents in the research and communicating the findings and potential solutions.
The NASA grant also will go toward researching air quality in Flint Hills, Kan., where ranchers routinely set fire to prairies to encourage grass growth for cattle grazing. Residents on the outskirts of these Great Plains prairies have raised similar complaints about breathing problems to those living in Florida’s sugar-belt, Magzamen said.
Magzamen’s proposal brings together researchers from six universities and NASA, each with different areas of expertise, including environmental justice, health epidemiology and pollution modeling. The team also plans to study the health impacts of cane burning on the communities.
“There’s not any data that we know of that shows the cumulative health effects over time,” Magzamen said. “But the pictures (The Post and ProPublica) shared in the article just made it clear: We know residents are breathing PM2.5, and we know that is bad for you.”