Adapted from the Statistics for Action Air Quality Manual
If you have concerns about air quality, observation is a great, low-cost organizing tool with the potential to engage the whole community. Make a standard pollution log everyone can use. Collect data and photos. Map the data and look for patterns. Now you've started a paper trail of evidence, with credible data and visuals to make your case, while spending very little money. If you do decide to do air testing, these observations will help you decide where and when to sample.
Community Member Checklist: Observations
Create a standard form for the community. Record what people see, smell, feel (physically), hear and taste during pollution incidents. Describe the weather, any visible conditions (smog, residue on leaves, mold, etc.) Take photos and videos. Note date and time.
Build a database with all the information. Look for patterns of industry behavior, or health problems in the area. It will help you decide where and when to sample.
Put observations and pictures on a map. Mark sources, like a power plant, highway, or construction. Show the direction that fumes and odors travel, where people live, and where children and the elderly are exposed. Bring the map to hearings, meetings with government agencies, legislators, media, and industry.
Odor Complaint Processes
Regulatory agencies often have formal ways for the public to make odor complaints. Unfortunately, some agencies lack staff or funding to adequately respond to complaints. The agency office may be far away from the industrial zone. Odors may come and go several times before an investigation is performed, if at all.
This can be frustrating, but odor complaint hotlines are an important tool for communities to interact with agencies. When multiple people call about a facility or event, it highlights the problem and starts a paper trail. Record your complaint on your pollution log. Confirm that your state is keeping records. After time, request the record of your complaint and any action taken. Some agencies develop a relationship with communities, and coach them on how to record their data more effectively.
See Hear Smell Feel
Odor Logging Where You Live
Many cities and towns have complaint hotlines set up. If you are in the United States, you can also look up your air quality district or log a complaint directly with the EPA:
- City of Des Moines Odor Complaint Hotline
- Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati
- Woonsocket Odor Complaint Information
- City of Houston BPCP Complaints
Non-profit organizations may also provide community hotlines or sample logs.
- South Durban Community Environmental Alliance Air Pollution Complaints
- Air Alliance Houston Report a Polluter and Neighborhood Witness
- Public Lab Odor Logging 1.0
- Air Watch Bay Area Smell My City
Lastly, community mapping is a valuable tool for putting data in context.
Read about Odor Logging on Public Lab
PL members @imvec and @sarasage and @joyofsoy have done incredible work collating and creating resources for community odor logging. Public Lab's odor logging page has a wide range of resources which are well worth checking out. The Sand Sentinel program partnered with Public Lab to create a resource kit for reporting pollution violations (not specifically odor) around dust sites in Wisconsin including sample observation logs and violation report forms. Lastly, this list of air quality guides includes a link to Air Alliance Houston's Air Quality Advocacy Toolkit, which details how odor complaints can be leveraged for long-term advocacy outcomes.
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Co-authored by Ethan Contini-Field, Martha Merson (TERC) Denny Larson, Ruth Breech, Jessica Hendricks (Global Community Monitor) Emily Marquez (Pesticide Action Network, North America) in collaboration with Global Community Monitor;Pesticide Action Network/North America; Toxics Action Center; Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League; Little Village Environmental Justice Organization; Operation Green Leaves; Pesticide Watch; New England Literacy Resource Center.
Originally published by TERC in 2014 with support from the National Science Foundation and shared with permission. Any materials posted on Public Lab are not endorsed by TERC or NSF and do not necessarily represent the views of either organization. Images courtesy of the Rini Templeton estate.