Effort set to flag down air pollution

About 40 community and environmental activists gathered at the Vietnamese-American Community Center in Fields Corner on Monday to discuss local air pollution and unveil a network of colored flags that will soon fly throughout Dorchester to indicate indicate each day's air quality in an effort to educate residents about their health and environment.

Rosanne Foley and Davida Andelman, both members of the Dorchester Environmental Health Coalition, hosted the meet-and-greet event to officially kick off their air quality index project, but local campaigners for bio-fuels, wind energy, recycling, organic farming, and even Zip Car were all there supporting their collective environmental efforts.

Becky Smith handed out lead testing kits on behalf of Clean Water Action, since she said the city of Boston, unlike New York or D.C., does not provide residents with free kits to test their home water.

"It seems like everybody that is here is actually a community leader on a different project," Smith said after the attendants introduced themselves and their causes. "They're all leading their own neighborhood projects about environmental and community health; it's incredibly exciting."

"We're always trying to get all parts of Dorchester interested in environmental health and environmental justice issues," said Andelman, a former respiratory therapist who heads the coalition's Air Quality Committee and who showed a Power Point presentation on the basics of air pollution.

Behind the flag effort is the Environmental protection Agency's "air quality index," which can be found online at epa.gov/airnow. The site provides daily color-coded air-quality forecasts that the coalition has adopted for its three flags: "Healthy" (green); "Moderate" (yellow); and "Unhealthy" (red).

"Thank you federal EPA," Andelman said jokingly to applause as she unfolded the newly minted green flag. Beginning within a week, she said, coalition volunteers will call the state Department of Environmental Protection's each morning for daily forecast, then hoist up the corresponding flag in three neighborhood locations: Fields Corner, Codman Square, and at the Bowdoin Street Health Center. Flags may also be added in Uphams Corner and outside St. Marks Church.

"It is really important that people know what's going on with the air we're breathing," Andelman said after running through slides that explained ozone pollution, or smog, and particle pollution, or soot, which forms when pernicious matter from things like burning fossil fuels imbues the air.

Ozone &endash; the third strongest global warming irritant after carbon dioxide and methane &endash; can pose coronary and pulmonary risks, she said, especially to the young and old, and can even makes exercising outdoors dangerous in the afternoon.

According to the coalition's executive summary, online at codman.org, "Dorchester is home to hazardous waste sites (255 brown fields), water pollution caused by sewer overflows and contaminated storm drains, diesel bus routes, industrial facilities (150 facilities), aged housing stock (23 percent of homes tested, were positive for lead), and fewer quality open spaces (6 acres per 1000 people)."

Diesel fuel became a focal point at the Monday night meeting as Danielle Connor, campaign organizer of Clean Water Action, passed out fill-in-the-blank letters for people to mail to their state representative and senator detailing the annual harm of diesel pollution in Massachusetts: 450 premature deaths, 9,900 asthma attacks, 13,000 respiratory symptoms in children, and 60,000 lost work days, according to the letter.

"Pollution control equipment and cleaner fuels can reduce harmful fine particle pollution by up to 90% by retrofitting with Diesel Particulate Filters," the letter reads, adding that for every dollar California, New Jersey, and New York spends to equip municipal vehicles with retrofits, they save $13 in health benefits.

"Basically what we're asking people to do is attach a fancy muffler that will reduce emissions by 90 percent," Connor said, adding that 90 percent of Boston's public buses are already up to date, but that private fleets should follow suit since potential legislation would include a funding mechanism to compensate citizens who bought non-retrofitted trucks.

"We're trying to get people to understand the connection between good air quality and good health," Andelman said as people picked at left-over vegetable wraps and marveled at the treasures many had reaped from the raffle that included rain barrels, copies of the book "An Inconvenient Truth," and even a hefty metal composter that looked like a bloated trashcan.

Shelly Goehring won some soy candles that she said will help her "switch over" from regular ones, and Baker School student Rianna Cranberg, 9, couldn't seem to wipe the free organic chocolate off her face, but said it would give her energy to "bike somewhere, not drive."

Asked what she did to personally better air quality, Andelman said, "I try not to drive my vehicle; I do a lot of walking; I keep my thermostat at 60 degrees in the winter; I insulated the house; I recycle; and I try to get my neighbors to recycle."

The issue of clean air topped the coalition's list of priorities during a strategy meeting about two years ago, Andelman said, and an anonymous donor has bankrolled the project since along with the EPA. But the next quarterly meeting available to the public will concern itself with open spaces, which Rosanne Foley spearheads, according to Andelman.

"We're in a densely populated area," Andelman said, "and we also want to preserve open spaces."