ST. PETERSBURG — Beneath the steeple and beside the double red doors of Gospel Ministries church is a monitor that can tell Childs Park residents if the air they are breathing is harmful.
The monitor can fit in one hand. It measures air pollution in real time for all to see. It’s another piece of information that could help this predominantly Black and low-income community figure out what health effects, if any, may come from a smell resembling gas or sulphur that has plagued the neighborhood for decades.
In April, the Tampa Bay Times reported on residents’ efforts to identify the source of the pervasive foul odor and eliminate it. In recent years, the smell has sickened neighbors, prompted a City Council member to leave the neighborhood and disrupted nearby Fairmount Park Elementary. A campaign is underway to educate and empower residents to report foul odors as they happen.
The monitor, made by a company called PurpleAir, is another way of putting residents in control. The monitor can be tracked online by the public and is accurate enough to be used in court proceedings, said Amy Stuart, an air quality expert at the University of South Florida.
Through grant funding, the city of St. Petersburg secured a handful of monitors to place around the community. Gospel Ministries on 15th Avenue S was chosen because, as a community institution, it was used as a Wi-Fi hotspot and as a site to distribute school learning devices during the pandemic.
PurpleAir monitors need Wi-Fi and a power connection. Each costs around $300.
“It feels good to have the first one in,” said Brother John Muhammad, president of the Childs Park Neighborhood Association, which is spearheading the “Smell Something? Say Something!” campaign.
Stuart said the monitors measure particulate matter, not odor, though some particles may include compounds related to the odor. This monitor measures different sizes of particulate matter. She said fine particulate matter, which is less than the width of a hair, can get deep into lungs and can effect respiratory and cardiovascular disease.
Residents believe the odor comes from an industrial corridor that borders the Pinellas Trail. On Thursday, workers from Pinellas County Schools observed the installation process to see how feasible it would be to install a monitor at nearby Fairmount Park Elementary. The school has had to cut recess short because the stench was unbearable.
Howco Environmental Services, a motor oil recycling plant based in the industrial corridor with tall black tanks that rise above Childs Park, is the only business in the corridor to receive odor or air quality complaints or violations in the past decade. The city said Howco is also interested in hosting a monitor on its site.
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Beverly Chappell, an 82-year-old who lives down the street from the church, offered to put a monitor in her backyard. She was overcome by the stench Wednesday.
“After I took the trash out, that was it,” she said.
The monitors can also pick up exhaust from passing cars and trucks. Weather can also affect readings, so Stuart said it’ll take about a month to see concentrations of pollution. A year of data will better show how air pollution varies through the seasons.
“It is an excellent start to (finding out) what it could possibly be,” said Polina Maciejczyk, an air pollution expert at Eckerd College.