An easy and public way to monitor air pollution that's also cheap in India
With a bucket and a plastic bag
Sasolburg, South Durban, Secunda and Table view -- major industrial cities in South Africa -- are notorious for their pollution levels. Oil refineries, sewage plants, paper mills, landfill sites, chemical storage facilities and smokestack industries dot these cities, making residents' lives miserable. Peoples' woes are also compounded by the fact that South African laws do not require industries to provide data on emissions. So in 2000, residents of South Durban decided to take matters into their own hands. That year, Ground Work -- a non-governmental organisation (ngo) that works on industrial air pollution -- along with the us-based Communities for a Better Environment and the South African Exchange Programme on Environmental Justice introduced the concept of bucket brigade, a community air monitoring system.
The system is based on a simple technique and uses a bucket containing a plastic bag. The bag is used to collect samples containing common solvents, hydrocarbons, chlorinated solvents and many other classes of compounds. At the selected sampling site, a vacuum is created in the bucket and consequently air fills into the plastic bag. A second bucket, containing another plastic bag is also taken to the site and is subjected to the same conditions, but no actual sample is taken.
Both bags are first compared for residues of pollutants. Then the sample is run through a Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometer, which compares its "fingerprints" with those of about 100 toxic gases recorded in the computer library. The bag is non-reusable and much of the costs incurred on it are borne by the ngos; government grants also help.
The ngos instruct local residents about the sampling techniques. They are asked to keep daily or weekly pollution logs and also record experiences of those affected by pollution. Samples of air taken at various industrial hot spots of South Africa have revealed the presence of high amounts of volatile organic compounds such as benzene, toluene, trichloroethylene, styrene, xylene and carbon tetrachlorides.
The campaign draws inspiration from a movement started by Edward Masry in Contra Costa County, California, usa. In 1995, Masry took ill after inhaling fumes from a factory near his house but was told by the state's pollution control authority that their monitors detected no problem. As a riposte, Masry got an environmental engineer to design a low cost device -- the bucket -- which communities living near toxic emitting plants can use to monitor air.
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