Air pollution is hurting people in developing countries at an alarming rate. A climate school project wants to help.


DW: Several years ago, I volunteered to serve as the State Department’s Air Quality Fellow and was posted to a post in Kinshasa, DRC. Since then, I have learned more and more about the problem of air pollution in countries of the South (especially in Africa) and I have become more involved in research in other places in Africa. Before that, I had also traveled to India for research and had seen with my own eyes the impact of extreme air pollution. These experiences steered me further towards a research program aimed at improving the health and well-being of people through cleaner air.

Q: What are you trying to solve? Why is this important?

VFM and DW: Air pollution is a global public health crisis, responsible for at least 6.7 million premature deaths each year. We are working to improve air quality and health in the cities we work with in Africa, India and Indonesia. Clean air is a fundamental right. Our goal is to translate our cutting-edge research on air pollution into impact on soil in the places where people are most affected.

Q: What is your background and that of your team and how has it influenced your work on the project?

VFM and DW: Our group includes researchers from Columbia Engineering, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, School of International and Public Affairs, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia Law, Data Science Institute and Earth Institute.

DW: I lead a research group on measuring and modeling climate change and air pollution, with a focus on at least seven major cities in sub-Saharan Africa. I have over 13 years of experience in climate and air quality research, starting with my PhD at Carnegie Mellon University. Recently funded by the National Science Foundation, my team and I launched a global and international project called the Clean Air Monitoring and Solutions Network (CAMS-Net, The main objective of this project is to obtain useful and actionable data from so-called low cost sensors for air quality, using data science methods to calibrate the sensors. I have extensive experience in several sub-areas of climate and air quality, including modeling, measurement and remote sensing, which brings a wealth of research opportunities to the CAToolbox team.

VFW: I have over 20 years of experience in atmospheric chemistry and aerosol research. My research group performs experimental and modeling studies to understand the mechanistic links between human activities and air quality. Connecting theory to practice is a basic principle in the field of atmospheric chemistry and I have always been inspired by my recent doctorate. to advise, Dr Mario Molina, which has been a pioneer in bringing together science, policy and stakeholders to address air quality issues in the Global South. As the Principal Investigator of the Clean Air Toolbox, I lead the group’s fieldwork in India and our collaborations in Jakarta.

Q: How has your project adapted to COVID?

VFM and DW: COVID has been difficult for everyone, and has prevented us from traveling for field work. Fortunately, we had established strong relationships with local collaborators before the pandemic, and they were able to take over data collection in our absence. We have also found that the global move towards teleconferencing during the pandemic has increased accessibility for meetings and capacity building activities. COVID has also provided a unique opportunity to study the effects of lockdown-related emissions reductions on air pollution in many cities in the Global South.

Q: How are local communities in Africa, India and Indonesia involved in the Clean Air Toolbox project?

VFM and DW: Local communities are at the heart of our efforts in all locations. Our goals include co-producing air quality data and solutions with local scientists, as well as exchanging knowledge between local experts and the Columbia team. Many of our projects are designed to be locally owned and operated. In the case of training programs, we aim to gradually integrate experts from Southern countries as educators and instructors so that the programs can continue beyond the life of our project.

Q: What have you found so far? What’s next for the project?

DW: We are pushing the boundaries in terms of low-cost sensor application for precise, high-resolution characterization of air pollution in locations across sub-Saharan Africa and in Kolkata, India and surrounding areas. My team recently published our first article in a peer-reviewed journal, which featured the very first measurements of ambient air pollution in Kinshasa and Brazzaville, two African mega-cities with a combined population of over 17 million. . We found that recent air quality levels were about 4 or 5 times (depending on the season) higher than the health recommendations set by the WHO.

VFM and DW: Our colleague Ama Francis from the Sabin Center for Climate Law legal and policy analysis completed for Kolkata, India, with recommendations of legal levers for a cleaner air policy available to the Kolkata Municipal Corporation. We also provide expert air quality, public health and policy advice and study design ideas to global and local partners in Indore, India, and Jakarta, Indonesia, in as part of the Clean Air Catalyst project funded by USAID.

As the world begins to open up again to in-person activities, we have already resumed work on the ground and have a busy schedule of programs ahead of us in the months to come. We continue to collect data, co-create outstanding scientific research with partners in the Global South, and fundraise to expand our project to more locations and deeper engagement in the years to come.

This article was originally published on Colombia News, as part of its Acting series, showcasing efforts across the university that draw on academic knowledge to address real-world challenges in a targeted manner.

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