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Tracking asthma threats in the Imperial Valley's hazy air

September 29, 2016 | The Desert Sun

When she catches the scent of smoke in the air, Jessica Herrera knows it’s time to retreat indoors to try to ward off another asthma attack.

Growing up in the Imperial Valley, the 18-year-old has learned that her symptoms can appear suddenly and become overpowering, taking away her ability to breathe. The pollution comes from a mix of sources: farmers burning the post-harvest stubble on their fields, smog drifting across the border from Mexicali, lines of cars and trucks belching exhaust and windblown dust wafting from farms, the desert and the shores of the Salton Sea.

Herrera and the others who suffer from asthma in the Imperial Valley will soon have a new tool to alert them to dangerous levels of air pollution. A network of 40 air monitoring devices is being installed in the region between the U.S.-Mexico border and the Salton Sea and is about to begin churning out a wealth of real-time data.

“Having this system will really help everyone,” Herrera said. “Not only will it help by documenting all of the contamination outside, but I think it could bring more awareness.”

By having community-level data, she said, teachers and school administrators will know when to suspend P.E. classes or other outdoor activities, and people will be able to receive emailed alerts from the system to avoid unhealthy air.

A grant of nearly $2 million from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences is supporting the project. It’s a collaborative effort involving environmental health advocates with the Brawley-based nonprofit Comité Cívico Del Valle, a researcher at the University of Washington, and the Public Health Institute’s California Environmental Health Tracking Program, which received the grant.

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This story was also reported by Moving Forward Network.