In a pocket of neighborhoods in Northwest Atlanta, Black residents live among a cluster of industrial and transportation facilities that researchers fear are silently deteriorating the communities’ health.

Scattered amid the tree-lined streets of Collier Heights and nearby residential communities, there are wastewater treatment plants, a train yard, a power plant, a concrete facility, and an asphalt plant. Within the same 3-mile radius, more than 150 jets depart and arrive from Fulton County Airport each day, emitting toxic exhaust that irritates airways.

“I always make the joke that I’m allergic to my house,” said Collier Heights resident Lwanda Hall, who was raised in the community, decamped for the suburbs, and later returned. “Since I’ve moved back to Collier Heights 12 years ago, I’ve had allergies, and I’ve never had them before. And I don’t know if that’s attributed to the house, or me being in this environment or old age.”

Due to a lack of air pollution monitoring in Black neighborhoods, many residents, similar to Hall, are unaware of what exactly they are breathing and whether it is exacerbating, if not causing, chronic health problems. With a recently installed air pollution monitor in Brookview Heights, Black scientists are working with community members to shed new light on this issue while educating local residents. 

Numerous studies have found that Black people are disproportionately exposed to harmful air pollutants that negatively affect their health. This is because Black communities like Brookview Heights and Collier Heights tend to be near industrial zones and roadways due to decades of racial segregation and redlining. 

Even though air pollution has steadily decreased across the U.S. since the 1980s due to stricter environmental regulations and cleaner energy sources, predominantly Black communities in Atlanta are still disproportionately burdened by airborne contaminants spewed from cars and heavy industry. This exacerbates cardiovascular and respiratory diseases that already beset Black folks more than the broader population, according to a study published in the Journal of Urban Health. 

While prior studies have relied on modeled estimates of air quality in Black neighborhoods, a clear understanding of air pollution begins with measurements taken locally. However, only a handful of regulatory air quality monitors are scattered across the metro Atlanta region — most of which are not located in predominantly Black areas. Georgia Tech has the sole regulatory air pollution monitor in Northwest Atlanta proper, although there are five other devices scattered around the metro area.

The Georgia Environmental Protection Division, a state agency charged with protecting Georgia’s air, land, and water resources, determines the location of regulatory air pollution monitors statewide.

Though there are a variety of social factors that go into deciding the location of monitors, race is not one of them, said DeAnna Oser, assistant branch chief at the Georgia EPD. Most monitors were placed over 20 years ago and are rarely ever moved, she added.  

“It’s a pretty big investment to put one of these regulatory monitoring stations out,” Oser said. “And once the monitor is in place, we’d like to maintain a history of that place.” 

That means high-quality, neighborhood-level data has often been unavailable for many Black communities facing higher risks of increased air pollution exposure, said Gwen Smith, founder of Community Health Aligning Revitalization Resilience & Sustainability, or CHARRS, an environmental health organization that focuses on Black and marginalized communities.

“You can’t make a correlation between what’s in the air and why you’re sick because we don’t know what’s in the air,” Smith said. “And we don’t know what’s in the air because there’s really no monitors. And oh, by the way, those monitors are too expensive, and nobody has the money.”  

To address that problem, Smith’s organization partnered with other environmental groups to install an air pollution monitor in Brookview Heights that will collect real-time data about key air pollutants until August 2024.

The project aims to address long-standing concerns over air pollution in the area and its potential impact on the health of local residents.

Brookview Heights, a majority-Black community of just under 600 people, sits just inside Atlanta’s busy Interstate 285 loop. Fulton County Airport’s runways are about a 2-mile drive west, and Norfolk Southern’s Inman Yard train depot is about a 5-mile drive to the northeast. The community, in short, is surrounded by car, truck, plane, and train emissions day in and out. 

The new monitor, which was installed at Atlanta’s Fire Station 38 in September, is a collaborative effort between CHARRS, 2BTech, TDEnviro, the West Atlanta Watershed Alliance, Georgia EPD, the University of Georgia, and the University of Maryland. The researchers hope it will empower West Atlanta residents with information about their environment and allow them to make more informed decisions about protecting their health. 

Unlike traditional monitors that only track pollutants regulated by the EPA, such as particulate matter and ozone, the new air quality monitor goes a step further. It can detect a wide range of pollutants, including harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other contaminants that have been linked to various health issues, said Christina Fuller, an environmental health scientist at the University of Georgia. 

The data collected will be made available to the public through a dedicated website, which isn’t yet active as of this publication. This is one of several efforts the researchers are taking to engage and educate local residents. 

Empowering the community

In September, an environmental justice bus tour led by the research team offered residents a closer look at pollution sources in their communities, including manufacturing plants, a UPS hub, and construction zones. The purpose of the tour was to make residents more aware of environmental risks associated with their built environment. 

“It was a little overwhelming to see how on top of each other the facilities were,” said attendee and resident Ari Holt. “There are two wastewater facilities in one neighborhood.”

Following the bus tour was a two-hour community workshop, where scientists and residents discussed environmental health education, emergency preparedness, and risk management.

“What happens if there’s an accident at Georgia Power or the waste management center or the airport?” Smith asked. “And if it does, what happens to the air quality, and how does that impact all the neighborhoods?”

The research team plans to facilitate two additional bus tours and community workshops before the project ends next August.

Residents can also sign up to become “community trekkers” equipped with handheld air quality monitors to assess their personal exposure to toxic pollutants in and around their neighborhood. 

“It’s hard to understand air pollution when sometimes you can’t see it or smell it,” said Fuller, so seeing how air pollutant levels fluctuate depending on where you are can be really educational, she added. 

“I’ve never visibly seen pollution coming from any of those facilities,” said Hall, the Collier Heights resident, “but I understand that there is an increase in air pollution. I live right by the flight pattern, so I’ve noticed an increase in aviation traffic, for example, over the past few years. You hear more airplanes going over.”

Residents, community leaders, and stakeholders interested in joining the researchers to discuss air pollution in West Atlanta communities can register for the AQEarth West Atlanta Presents: Air Quality Community Conversations on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1. 

This story has been updated to correctly identify Na’Taki Osborne Jelks and Gwen Smith in a caption.