The San Joaquin Valley is notorious for its air quality, especially in Fresno County.
In 2013, 93706 was ranked first in the Most Polluted ZIP Codes in California based on an interactive map released by the California Environmental Protection Agency, with 93702 and 93725 listed 5th and 9th respectively.
Fresno residents are breathing some of the dirtiest air in the nation, and one Fresno youth is developing a way to let Fresnans know just how bad the air they’re breathing really is.
Kieshaun White, 18, is a resident of Southwest Fresno. Growing up, he remembers going outside and smelling the air. Curious, he would asked why it smelled like that, and he would always get the same answer: “it’s the burning of the factories.”
This led White to an even bigger question that inspired the work he’s doing today: “If it smells that bad, what is it doing to our bodies?”
As he pondered that question, he noticed something about many residents of Southwest Fresno, including himself. They all suffered from respiratory issues such as asthma and lung disease, as well as cardiovascular disease, due to the bad air quality and pollution that surrounds the area.
For the past year and a half, White, along with his mentor Marcel Woodruff from Fresno Boys and Men of Color, have been working hard on a project that measures pollutants in both North and South Fresno to show that there are higher levels of pollution affecting people’s health in South Fresno than in North Fresno.
The Kieshaun White Healthy Air Experiment divided Fresno into four quadrants – South 1, South 2, North 1, North 2 – to get a median air quality measurement in each zone. White went to schools in each site and measured the air quality at ground level for 15 minutes and at air level using a drone for another 15 minutes.
As White predicted, the median measurements of particulate matter 2.5, particulate matter 10, total volatile organic compounds (TVOC) and C02 (carbon dioxide) in South Fresno were four times higher than North Fresno. The actual numbers for each quadrant can be seen at the Kieshaun White Healthy Air Experiment website.
“The city has turned a blind eye to the community [of Southwest Fresno], allowing industries to saturate the neighborhood,” White said.
White went to Orange Center Elementary School in Southwest Fresno, and expected the readings to be very unhealthy, at about a 100-150 on the air quality index. What he found was even more alarming than he expected.
As he was doing his reading, a train passed by and the reading for particulate matter spiked to the 400s on the air quality index. That’s considered hazardous air.
“It was deep red,” White said. “I didn’t even know the monitor went that far. To deep red. And this is at an elementary school. It’s not even people who have already developed lungs – these are people who are still growing and developing.”
With the first phase of his project completed, White is moving on to phase two: putting real-time air quality monitors in high-impacted schools and creating an app.
“We placed [the air quality monitors] at Edison High School, Fresno City College and we’re putting one up in Cambridge Continuation School soon,” White said. “And with that, we’re going to have the air quality monitors feed through my app.
“The app will list all the schools and their PMs – the particulate matters – and [the data] will actually feed through my app to where anybody that lives in that area or goes to that school can look it up and see the actual real-time air quality,” White continued.
With a project this big, White will need help monitoring the air quality monitors.
As part of phase two of the Kieshaun White Healthy Air Experiment, White is looking to create youth opportunities and bring on interns to help with the project.
“We’re going to get interns to help plan out the app and help build it,” White said. “Every school that will have an air quality monitor, there will be a work study program for students to engage in maintaining the app and keeping it on, keeping it good and keeping it clear.”
The project has received much support from the community, and has gotten the attention of many organizations, which has led White to receive grants to continue doing this work as well as conference invites.
On November 13, White was invited to the American Public Health Association’s Annual Meeting & Expo in San Diego where he hosted a roundtable discussion on the air disparities between North and South Fresno.
White said it feels great to have the support of his community. “I’ve built a foundation, I’ve connected with so many great people from so many different organizations. I feel like I’ve received so much love. Having that push, that motivation, it really makes me get up everyday and do what I love.”
His mentor, Marcel Woodruff, said White has always had a love for science.
“Before the project even kind of came about, he had this love for science,” Woodruff said. “He had a love for science and a love for community, so when he approached me about this project, I was trying to figure out how to integrate all this in a way that can build a platform for him.”
White’s love for science and his community has led him to create something that changes how Fresno and its resident can view, read and understand the air quality around them.
At just 18 years old, this is an amazing accomplishment.
“I want to be the poster [child] for all the young kids saying it’s impossible to start something so young,” White said. “I’m trying to speak for the people that don’t have that extra push. You’re that push. That’s all you need. If you dedicate enough time doing what you love to do, trust me, it’s all going to come through.”
And being able to do what he loves in his own community makes everything more personal for White. “It means a lot to me. This is my city, this is my home, this is my castle. Just to give back in any type of way, it makes me feel fulfilled. But to give back in a way to actually better people’s health and life expectancy, man, come on now. That’s just the collab.”
While White’s work is primarily focused on Fresno, he eventually wants to expand. First in the Central Valley, then throughout California, and possibly take it global.
“Pollution is everywhere,” White said. “Everyone would love to be informed of what they’re breathing in. Who wouldn’t?”
White said there’s still a lot to come with the project in the coming months – hoping that his app will launch soon and residents of Fresno will soon be able to have the real-time air quality in their area in the palm of their hands.
Woodruff is excited to see what White can and will accomplish with his project. “I think that Kieshaun is sitting on a golden egg that he doesn’t even see yet,” he said.
“My hope for Kieshaun’s project is that he nurtures it and it becomes that global thing that he wants it to be, because I genuinely think it can become that.”