Here are the worst areas for air pollution in DC, according to satellite imagery

Air quality is often measured near the surface using handheld monitors or devices run by state agencies or the Environmental Protection Agency.

Now researchers are using satellite images to quickly identify pollution problems that cause health issues.

“Satellite data provides a first look at what the pollution looks like, and then we can use other ground-based sensors that can narrow-in on the problem, said Dan Goldberg, an assistant research professor at The George Washington University Milken School of Public Health.

Goldberg spoke to WTOP shortly before leading a panel discussion on the topic with NASA specialists at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas.

“Orbiters that are about 700 kilometers up above us, orbiting every day and taking measurements of a pollutant called nitrogen dioxide in very high spatial resolution, of about one or two miles wide,” said Goldberg. “The bloom that I look at mostly comes from tailpipes and smokestacks, so there’s higher concentrations near cities, near lots of cars, construction equipment and industrial operations.”

Goldberg was asked to provide an overview of where air pollution is the worst in and around the nation’s capital.

“For nitrogen dioxide, the highest concentrations are near the center of the city, sort of between the National Mall and National Airport,” Goldberg said. “There’s obviously a lot of vehicles in that location, you have planes taking off quite often from National, so there’s a lot of pollution in that general area.”

Goldberg said the satellite images show enhanced levels of pollution from diesel trucks along area highways.

In Washington, “These diesel trucking routes, and the communities near them, tend to be more on the eastern side of D.C.,” said Goldberg. The higher levels of pollution exacerbate some of the health issues that disproportionately affect people of color.

“The communities on the eastern side of D.C. have other social determinants of health, such as poor nutrition and low quality of health care that makes them a little more susceptible to air pollution — it’s just one extra burden on top of other burdens they’re facing,” Goldberg said.

He added that satellite images often show increased levels of pollution in Baltimore.

“They have pretty big ports, where there’s coal exports, a lot of things going throughout the world, so there’s a lot of industrial operations that D.C. doesn’t always have,” Goldberg said. “Baltimore tends to be a little more polluted than Washington, D.C.”

Air pollution isn’t the only problem that can be monitored by satellites. Researchers, doctors and health care policy experts are using new technologies to predict and track disease, monitor disease-spreading mosquitoes, and wildfire emissions and pollution.

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Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a general assignment reporter with WTOP since 1997. He says he looks forward to coming to work every day, even though that means waking up at 3:30 a.m.

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