Getting Answers: asthma and air quality in the Pioneer Valley

Year after year, Springfield makes the list of worst places to live for people with asthma.
Published: Feb. 16, 2023 at 5:55 PM EST|Updated: Mar. 9, 2023 at 11:28 AM EST
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SPRINGFIELD, MA (WGGB/WSHM) - Year after year, Springfield makes the list of worst places to live for people with asthma. An ongoing study involving dozens of real-time air monitors is allowing people to pinpoint the air quality in their neighborhood.

“It was like I couldn’t breathe and I was coughing and coughing,” said Sonia Ramos.

Ramos moved to Springfield from Puerto Rico in 2020 and started experiencing health issues right away.

“So living in the city, close by to the roads, it makes a difference. That’s how it impacted my health,” Ramos added.

Ramos ended up in the emergency room and diagnosed with asthma. It was something she had never dealt with before living in Springfield, dubbed the asthma capitol of the nation in 2018 and 2019 and now ranks number 58 on the list.

“Because we live in a valley, we not only get poor air quality from the transportation or factories or other uses that cause poor air quality in this region. We also get it from other regions were the winds blow in and it just settles in the valley,” said Sarita Hudson, director of programs and development for the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts.

According to Baystate Health, people living in Hampden County visit the emergency room for asthma at twice the rate of the state average and hospitalization rates in the county are 70 percent greater than statewide rates. In addition, Black people in Hampden County visit the emergency room for asthma at double the rate of white people. Hudson told Western Mass News this is partly due to environmental racism.

“Which means that…roads that are built through neighborhoods, so that people are more impacted by transportation, exhaust or factories that are nearby neighborhoods where people live,” Hudson noted.

There are many factors that contribute to air quality and getting good data is key in finding the root causes and solutions. That’s where the Healthy Air Network comes in.

“Air is coming up in here and the sensor is taking the reading is here. Again, that’s particulate matter, the tiny dust particles,” said Yoni Glogower, director of conservation and sustainability with the Healthy Air Network.

The study began last year and was initially funded by the state attorney general’s office and has now grown to more than 60 air monitors across the region. The air monitors can be hard to spot. They’re positioned outside public schools, city buildings, and other sites, like at the Springfield Museums, where air readings are taken every two minutes. The reading is converted into an index of air quality from zero to 300. The higher the number, the worse the air quality.

“It’s telling us the air quality index is only 25, so that’s pretty good,” Glogower added.

The air quality outside Glogower’s Holyoke office is good at last check, but readings differ based on the location, time of day, and wind direction. At the same time, H.B. Lawrence School in Holyoke has a reading of 77, or moderate air quality. The Healthy Air Network website recommended that people with respiratory or heart disease, the elderly, and children should consider reducing prolonged or heavy exertion. Also, watch for symptoms such as coughing or shortness of breath.

“When I check the sensor, I know when I’m ready. I know what I need to do before I go outside,” Ramos said.

The website allows Ramos, who now lives in Holyoke, to check the air monitor closest to her and make decisions about medication and outdoor activities that day. All the while, the data is being studied by a team of researchers from Yale University.

“…And that’s what we’re focused on right now is to be able to say, ‘this is the problem’ and as we learn more about the problem, then also address and think about solutions,” said Krystal Pollitt, associate professor at the Yale School of Public Health.

in the meantime, the Asthma Coalition - made up of health professionals, community groups, and residents like Ramos - are spreading the word. She’s focusing on Spanish speakers who might be unaware of the issue, just like she once was.

“I could let them know, you know, there’s something else is going on it’s not just what you’re using in your detergent. It’s more the environment, get prepared, go to the hospital, go to the doctor,” Ramos explained.

You can find the real-time air monitor readings from the Healthy Air Network by CLICKING HERE.