On June 29, while Canadian wildfire smoke spread across the Midwest, residents gathered for an air quality workshop. Residents left with more information on air quality and how JustAirs data can keep their communities safe.
During the last week of June, air quality in Grand Rapids, Michigan was some of the worst in the country. Smokey air traveling hundreds of miles from eastern Canada hazed skies across the midwest and Grand Rapids’ residents were surrounded by thick, sooty air. JustAir’s air quality monitors frequently logged an AQI (air quality index) of over 200, which is considered very unhealthy by the Environmental Protection Agency.
On June 29, JustAir co-hosted a community workshop in partnership with leaders at Community Collaboration on Climate Change (C4) and the Greater Grand Rapids NAACP. More than 50 residents who had been breathing unhealthy air all week filled a community space in the city’s 49507 zip code, which encompasses Grand Rapids’ most diverse neighborhoods, where the majority of residents identify as Black or Hispanic.
“We’ve all been breathing unhealthy air this week and it’s starting to impact our lives,” Kareem Scales said into the microphone at the front of the room. Kareem started working on the Grand Rapids air quality monitoring project last year while he was the executive director of the local NAACP chapter. Serving as the event’s emcee, he asked residents to share their experiences dealing with the week’s air pollution.
Some people have asthma and felt their lungs struggle to breathe. Some kept their children indoors with the windows closed. Others got headaches and sore throats. One man in his late fifties saw JustAir co-founder and CEO Darren Riley on a local FOX News show that morning and decided to come to the workshop because he was concerned for his health - he works in landscaping and had no choice but to be outdoors in the smoke.
The City of Grand Rapids started working with JustAir in 2022 and installed five air quality monitors near the downtown area. Resident leaders in the 49507 zip code - which is boarded by a highway, high traffic roads, and has industrial sites intermixed with some neighborhoods - wanted their own monitors. Red lining, zoning, and environmental racism often means people of color are more likely to live in communities with poor air quality (American Lung Association).
Ned Andree is a C4 Project Coordinator who was born and raised in South East Grand Rapids. Ned serves on community task forces, nonprofit boards, neighborhood associations, and more to ensure the Black, Indigenous, and People of Color have representation in climate justice conversations. Ned and C4 are a major reason residents in 49507 have seven new air quality monitors.
“I’m happy to help bring JustAir to Grand Rapids because clean air is so important to our health,” Ned said. “My wife teaches at a school on a heavy truck route that’s near an energy plant and a highway. She and the kids deserve to know if the air they are breathing is safe. JustAir provides the community with that data and, when informed, they can take air quality action!”
By the end of the workshop, residents signed up for air quality alerts, learned how to best protect themselves from the smoke, and many felt a little less alone in dealing with the stress and fear of breathing polluted air.
The NAACP donated three air purifiers to give away at the event and as Scales rattled off the raffle numbers, an older woman at the front table looked in disbelief at her raffle ticket. “Really? I never win anything!” She smiled and her neighbors applauded as Scales walked over her new air purifier. She left feeling lucky, connected, and more prepared to handle the next wave of wildfire smoke.
For more information on the Grand Rapids project, to get text alerts when air quality is poor, or to view current air quality data in the city, visit https://www.justair.co/locations/grand-rapids.