Strange smells, smog or smoke over the city, car exhausts, industrial emissions – you almost never see air, but often feel that something is wrong with it. A study from Angelina Davydova highlighted with the help of data by Greenpeace for a media report titled “Not Trasparent As Air”, about quality of air in Russia.

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The team who worked on the report: from the left Vladimir Shvedov (editor), Aksana Zinchenko (design) and Angelina Davydova (author)

Determining air quality is difficult: the concentrations of pollutants are distributed very unevenly and depend on many parameters – proximity to sources of pollution, weather, terrain, urban development and gardening. Low concentrations of pollutants can be replaced by high concentrations at a distance of only ten meters.

Air is one of the main risk factors for human health related to the environment. Every year, about four million people die prematurely due to polluted air, and 9 out of 10 people breathe air with a high concentration of pollutants, according to the World Health Organization.

Primary pollutants are Nitrogen oxides, Carbon oxides and Hydrogen sulfide.

The report treats also involvement of people in environmental matters. More and more Russians are interested in environmental issues: in Moscow, about 20-24% of the population is concerned about environmental issues, and, for example, in Chelyabinsk and Sverdlovsk regions – up to 30-36%. In general, residents of Russian cities are worried about water quality and air pollution (40.8% and 40%, respectively). Every fifth inhabitant of Russia is ready to take part in various protest actions, if the authorities do not solve actual problems. But the main problem is that getting reliable information is not easy.

An involvement surely positive, as often it is said that people treat this planet like it had another one, but not a surprise of Angelina Davidova who worked on the field. “I was already aware of that involvement, in many ways that is why I suggested the project and we started working on it – Davidova said – But then during our work we discovered many more initiatives and we saw an ever growing interest, so we can also say we opened up a lot of new interest and activities and wanted to share them, to support them and to bring attention to them”.

The widest network of monitoring stations in RosHydroMet, 678 in 243 cities. Only Roshydromet (the State Hydrometeorological Service which functions within the Federal MInistry of Natural Resources and Environment) sells its data to the regions, and far from all regional budgets this waste is planned. About twenty cities, including Moscow, St. Petersburg and Krasnoyarsk have made their local air quality monitoring systems.

In Moscow, several months ago, the site of the Mosekomonitoring (an official City of Moscow service for Monitoring of air pollution within the Department for Nature Use and Environment protection of the Moscow city government) was updated and data on air pollution became more accessible. Sites with information on air pollution have the administrations of several other Russian cities and some regional offices of Roshydromet.

As environmentalists say, the information on these sites is not always displayed correctly and sometimes is not entirely clear, but it does exist. At the same time, most residents of Russian cities remain unaware – although they can learn that they live in the city from the “black list” after the fact, after the publication of the annual state report on environmental protection.

There are standard values such as MPC (the maximum permissible concentration) but different departments can interpret data on air pollution at their own discretion, and not as prescribed by law. For example, using World Health Organization recommendations instead of statutory MPC.

It is often more beneficial for authorities to hide environmental problems so as not to question their effectiveness. Greenpeace made an interactive map “What does Moscow breathe?” On the basis of Mosecomonitoring data, so that any resident of the capital could independently study the dynamics and distribution of 15 pollutants.

Knowing the air pollution of specific substances and their effect on health, people can protect both with short and long-term solutions.

According to the law, citizens have the right to reliable information about the state of the environment, but there are several pitfalls:

Ordinary people can monitor air quality, but legal entities need a license for this. Most devices measure only 1-2 pollutants with different degrees of error, and often the accuracy is not very high. Although if there are many such instruments, when comparing the indicators, it is already possible to draw some conclusions about the nature of the spread of pollutants and how weather or proximity to sources of pollution affect it.

Independent monitoring works, as you can see by the Russian experience of Krasnoyarsk.nebo, application and site for air quality monitoring. The sensors are installed in five areas and measure the amount of PM2.5 particles in the air.

The growing interest in local and user-friendly information about air quality is a global trend. From startups that transmit air pollution in various cities and regions of the world in (almost) real time mode, one can single out French Plumelabs, Israeli Breezometer, Russian Aerostate. Official online systems for providing information on air quality work, for example, in the EU – Air Quality or in the USA – Air Now.

In many cities around the world, activists are launching alternative, “people’s” monitoring systems, or working to ensure that people receive information on air pollution in a convenient form and with specific recommendations, what can be done and what should be avoided. Similar systems arise, for example, in the European Union, where residents also grow dissatisfied with state or urban air quality monitoring systems.

An example of an integrated approach is the Polish system of “people” fixing smog, which works in almost 30 cities and regions of the country. In most regions, the oncor uses data from municipal air quality monitoring systems and its own sensors, which present the obtained data on the map and give recommendations to residents of different regions on how to behave when the city was able.
Activists do not want to compete with the state or create additional systems. First of all, they want to improve the official systems and give people information in an understandable and accessible form.

Can people’s involvement be a pressure on the official institutions to be more “open” about their data? “I hope so – Angelina Davidova added – I mean that has already happened in case of Moscow (e.g. more information in a more visual/understandable/easy to understand way), and hopefully other regions will follow the example, and overall providing environmental information will become more of a neccessity to the regional authority, something they feel they need to provide and hold responsility for — to the general public, not only federal authorities (and not only for the reports)”.

Photo the kremlin at sunset by greg westfall is under license CC BY 2.0

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