Air Pollution Is Harming People in the Global South at an Alarming Rate. A Climate School Project Wants to Help.

Researchers from Columbia's Climate School are using data collection, community collaboration, and startups to reduce the negative health effects of pollution in India, Indonesia, and the continent of Africa.

By
Caroline Harting
July 23, 2021

Taking Action is a Columbia News series that seeks to showcase efforts from around the university that rely on academic knowledge to tackle real-world challenges in a purposeful way. 


While residents of the East Coast of the United States are currently witnessing the smog and pollution produced by recent wildfires thousands of miles away in the western United States and Canada, the Global South has been devastated by the health effects of poor air quality for years.  

According to a 2019 UNICEF report, air pollution deaths on the continent of Africa grew by nearly 60% in the last 30 years. India has 35 of the 50 most polluted cities in the world. In 2020, there were 54,000 premature deaths in New Delhi alone. Reliable air monitoring systems help determine what actions are needed to remediate pollution. Unlike the United States, neither region has a dependable air quality surveillance system in place.

A team of researchers and scientists from six Columbia University divisions led by the Climate School’s V. Faye McNeill and Daniel Westervelt hope to help. Their project, the Clean Air Toolbox for Cities, aims to close the data collection gaps in Africa, India, and Indonesia to identify pollution sources and support local communities to mitigate the health effects from pollution. 

McNeill and Westervelt spoke to Columbia News about what inspired them to take on this tremendous task, how COVID affected their work, and how local communities are integral to ensuring the project succeeds.

V. Faye McNeill

Q: Describe the Clean Air Toolbox. What inspired you to start this project?

VFM and DW: We are a large, interdisciplinary group of researchers at Columbia University working together to improve air quality in cities, with a special focus on cities in the Global South (particularly sub-Saharan Africa, India, and Indonesia). The Clean Air Toolbox (CAToolbox) is a science-based, collaborative approach to equipping cities with tools to protect human health by measuring and reducing air pollution risk. Although individually we have been pursuing our own research on these topics for years, the group began working together officially in May 2019.

CAToolbox activities are currently ongoing in: Nairobi and Mombasa, Kenya; Kampala, Uganda; Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo; Brazzaville, Republic of Congo; Accra, Ghana; Kigali, Rwanda; Lome, Togo; Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; Jakarta, Indonesia, and Kolkata and Indore in India. As funds are raised we plan to deepen our work in these locations and scale to additional cities.

Daniel Westervelt

We work with partners on the ground in each city to strengthen existing collaborative networks working toward clean air. Partners in these networks include local government, academics, NGOs, citizen groups, and industry, especially startup companies. We build on existing measurement efforts to create a sustainable air pollution monitoring network and generate openly shared, high-quality neighborhood-level air pollution exposure data, one of the primary challenges for improving air quality. Using this data, we work with local experts to evaluate the impacts of air pollution, especially on children’s health, and identify sources of pollution.

VFM: Although I have been doing research in air pollution and climate for more than 20 years, my work has usually been on the side of fundamental discoveries. Especially as a mother of two children with asthma, I’m motivated to do whatever I can to translate the cutting edge air pollution research that’s happening at Columbia into action on the ground to improve the health of children in the Global South. I have a special connection to India and Southeast Asia through my husband’s family and have been traveling there for years, so it’s especially meaningful to be able to make an impact there. 

DW: Several years ago, I volunteered to serve as a Department of State “Air Quality Fellow” and was assigned to a post in Kinshasa, DRC. Since then, I learned more and more about the air pollution problem in the Global South (especially Africa), and got more involved in research in other places in Africa. Prior to that, I had also traveled to India for research and saw the impact of extreme air pollution first hand. These experiences steered me more toward a research agenda with an aim to improve people’s health and well-being through cleaner air.

Q: What are you trying to solve? Why is it important?

VFM and DW: Air pollution is a global public health crisis, responsible for at least 6.7 million premature deaths each year. We are working to improve air quality and health in the cities we're working with in Africa, India, and Indonesia. Clean air is a fundamental right. It is our goal to translate our cutting edge air pollution research into impact on the ground in the places where people are the most affected.

Q: What backgrounds do you and your team have, and how have they influenced your work on the project? 

VFM and DW: Our group includes researchers from Columbia Engineering, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, School of International and Public Affairs, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia Law, Data Science Institute, and Earth Institute.  

DW: I lead a research group on climate change and air pollution measurement and modeling, with a focus on at least seven major cities in sub-Saharan Africa. I have more than 13 years of experience in climate and air quality research, starting with my PhD degree at Carnegie Mellon University. Recently funded by the National Science Foundation, my team and I started a global, international project called the Clean Air Monitoring and Solutions Network (CAMS-Net, www.camsnet.org). The main goal of this project is to get useful, actionable data out of so-called low cost sensors for air quality, using data science methods to calibrate the sensors. I have a broad background in multiple subfields of climate and air quality, including modeling, measurement, and remote sensing, which brings a wealth of research possibilities to the CAToolbox team. 

VFW: I have more than 20 years of experience in atmospheric chemistry and aerosol research. My research group does experimental and modeling studies to understand the mechanistic connections between human activities and air quality. Connecting theory to practice is a core principle of the atmospheric chemistry field and I have always been inspired by my late Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Mario Molina, who was a pioneer in bringing science, policy, and stakeholders together to address air quality issues in the Global South. As principal investigator of the Clean Air Toolbox, I’m leading the group's fieldwork in India and our collaborations in Jakarta.

Q: How did your project adapt to COVID?

VFM and DW: COVID was difficult for everyone, and prevented us from traveling for field work. Luckily we had established strong ties with local collaborators prior to the pandemic, and they were able to take charge of data collection in our absence. We have also found that the global shift toward teleconferencing during the pandemic has increased accessibility for meetings and capacity-building activities. COVID also provided a unique opportunity to study the effects of lockdown-related emissions reductions on air pollution in many cities in the Global South. 

Q: How are the local communities in Africa, India, and Indonesia involved in the Clean Air Toolbox project? 

VFM and DW: Local communities are central to our efforts in all locations. Our goals include co-producing air quality data and solutions with local scientists, and also exchanging knowledge between the local experts and the Columbia team. Many of our projects are designed to be locally owned and operated. In the case of training programs, we aim to phase in experts from the Global South as educators and instructors such that the programs can continue beyond our project lifetime. 

Q: What have you found so far? What’s next for the project?

DW: We are pushing the envelope in terms of application of low-cost sensors for accurate, high-resolution characterization of air pollution in places across Sub-Saharan Africa and in Kolkata, India, and environs. My team recently published our first peer-reviewed journal article, which showcased the first-ever ambient air pollution measurements in Kinshasa and Brazzaville, two African megacities with a combined population of over 17 million. We found that recent air quality levels were about 4 or 5 times (depending on the season) higher than the healthy guidelines determined by the WHO. 

VFM and DW: Our colleague Ama Francis from the Sabin Center for Climate Law completed legal and policy analysis for Kolkata, India, with recommendations of legal levers for clean air policy available to the Kolkata Municipal Corporation. We are also providing expert air quality science, public health, and policy consultation and study design insights to global and local partners in Indore, India, and Jakarta, Indonesia, as part of USAID-funded Clean Air Catalyst project.

As the world begins to open back up to in-person activities, we have already resumed field work and have a busy agenda of programs ahead of us in the coming months. We continue to collect data, co-create outstanding scientific research with partners in the Global South, and fund raise for scaling up our project to more locations and more in-depth engagement in the coming years.