An air monitor at Seeley Elementary School show extremely unhealthful levels of particles in the air, but no one alerted neighbors of school leaders. Now, the same program will be coming to the Coachella Valley.
Neighbors of Seeley Elementary School might have been breathing toxic amounts of dust for weeks during the summer, based on the readings of an air monitor put up at the school by a nonprofit. Despite the sky-high measurements — more than 40 times what the World Health Organization considers a healthy level for PM10 air pollution — no one took action and neighbors were left unaware of the danger.
Now, Comite Civico del Valle, a nonprofit based in Brawley that operates these monitors, is using state funds as it expands its network of monitors to the eastern Coachella Valley, where the same thing could happen again.
Comite Civico says the organization’s goal is to turn community concerns into research — and not necessarily action.
“Everything we did was based on community concerns,” said Humberto Lugo, who manages the organization’s air-monitoring program. “Community concerns (were) that there was not enough regulatory data and not enough air-quality data out there to really make informed decisions about your everyday activities and kind of just understand what’s happening in different neighborhoods throughout the Imperial County.”
Lugo said the organization shares the data it collects through its system of monitors with research partners and legislators, who can use the information to advocate for better regulations and enforcement on sources of air pollution. But in the short term, it is unclear who is tasked with informing the community when monitors show dangerously high pollution levels, just like the one in Seeley did over the summer.
PM10, particulate matter that is 10 micrometers or smaller, could be dust particles or moisture small enough to lodge in the lungs. Six to 10 particles that small can fit across the diameter of a human hair, according to the California Air Resources Board.
According to Lugo, his team was aware of the over 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter averages of PM10 recorded by the school’s monitor, but chalked it up to the construction of a new gym on campus. Up to 20 micrograms per cubic meter is considered a safe level by the World Health Organization.
School was out for the summer, and no action was taken. But as students began filing in for their first week of school in August, the monitor continued to register levels over 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter of pollution. Administrators, educators, parents and students at Seeley said they had no idea.
When The Desert Sun reached out to staff at Seeley Elementary, school officials were unaware of the purpose of the monitor on their campus.
However, they are aware of the often dangerous levels of pollution in the area, and the school has used a flag system to create awareness of the day’s air quality levels. Based on the air quality, the school would raise a flag, colored green, yellow, orange or red to indicate whether it was safe to be outside.
Even though they had a monitor on the campus, Seeley School District Superintendent Cecilia Dial said her staff relied on regional, less granular data provided by the county.
Dial said Lugo’s organization never explained how the monitor could be used by the school or where staffers could access the data it collects. “The monitor was just there as another access point to gather data,” Dial explained.
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