Building a bridge to clean air in Houston

Air pollutants associated with heart and asthma attacks are present in high levels near U.S. Highway 59 between state Highway 288 and Interstate Highway 610, according to a recent report from Rice University students who are part of a multiyear project with Air Alliance Houston.

From left: Vera Liu, Will Deaderick, Jackie Yang and Ryan Saathoff. Photo credit: Rice's Center for Civic Leadership.

From left: Vera Liu, Will Deaderick, Jackie Yang and Ryan Saathoff. Photo credit: Rice’s Center for Civic Leadership.

The project aims to raise awareness about the pollution and ultimately reduce it. In the first phase of the program, a Houston Action Research Team of four Rice students used monitoring equipment from the city of Houston to measure air pollutants at the Hazard Street bridge at U.S. 59. Samples were gathered during morning and afternoon rush hours in spring 2016.

“Like all HARTs advised through the Center for Civic Leadership, the Bridge to Clean Air project is a collaboration of a Houston community partner, a faculty adviser and an interdisciplinary team of Rice undergraduates,” said Elizabeth Vann, director of programs and partnerships for Rice’s Center for Civic Leadership. “The project allowed students to address a critical issue of our time and provided them opportunities not only to measure and document local pollution, but to contribute to the project’s long-term goal of improving air quality along this section of Highway 59, which is just blocks from Rice’s campus.”

Using statistical analyses, the team examined levels of fine particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide, air pollutants that have been linked to increased risk of cardiac arrest and asthma attacks in Houston. The team determined that both fine particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide concentrations at the bridge site were at notably high levels. More than 25 percent of the hourly measurements of fine particulate matter were high relative to 24-hour national air quality standards (note: locations were not measured over a 24-hour period). For the same time period, these concentrations were higher than concentrations at locations that routinely monitor for fine particulates in other parts of the city, the report said. The highest, most troublesome concentrations occurred during the morning sampling periods.

The monitoring equipment at the retaining wall of U.S. Highway 59 North below the Hazard Street bridge.

The monitoring equipment at the retaining wall of U.S. Highway 59 North below the Hazard Street bridge.

The sampling location was selected because it is ranked by the Texas Department of Transportation as the second-most congested roadway in Houston and the third in Texas. In addition, this area borders a residential neighborhood, which includes an elementary school, said Loren Raun, a research faculty fellow in statistics at Rice who supervised the project alongside Vann and Alan Steinberg, associate director of Houston programs and partnerships at the Center for Civic Leadership.

Vera Liu, a rising senior majoring in statistics, signed up for the project because of her concern regarding the issues of air quality and pollution.

“This was a very interesting and exciting experience during my first two years of college because it allowed me to apply my knowledge of the issues to the real world,” she said.

The report recommended installing equipment near the site to remove fine particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide from the air. It also recommended additional air pollution studies along Houston highways, especially segments that are adjacent to residential areas.

Jackie Yang, a recent Rice graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering, said the project offered her an excellent opportunity to develop a deep understanding about environmental issues.

“I have been involved in many research activities and engineering projects that relate to renewable energy and efficient energy solutions,” Yang said. “I wanted to obtain firsthand experience in the investigation on environmental issues in the local community.”

Yang said she became interested in the project because air pollution affects people’s everyday lives, and the project gave her the opportunity for hands-on experience gathering and testing samples that could ultimately make a difference in reducing pollution.

“Environmental impacts play a significant role in almost all areas of science and engineering,” she said. “My future academic and career goals include participating in the development of the next generation’s vehicles, which make the full use of electrical power and automatous systems. The knowledge of environment problems that people currently face will help me in the potential improvement that can be made to new vehicles.”

Adrian Shelley, the executive director of Air Alliance Houston, said the students were intelligent, conscientious and eager to do real field work.

“They handled themselves very well and were excited about the project,” he said. “They gave a solid presentation about the report’s findings, which were presented very clearly. They did a fine job.”

Those involved with the report would like to see it presented to as many policymakers as possible. Air Alliance plans to share the report with the Houston Health Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, which has a staff member assigned as a liaison to the project.

Raun supervised the students during each four-hour air-monitoring session. She said the team contributed many hours to the project, both in the field and doing data analyses.

“(The students) were just really ambitious, very intellectually curious and excited to make an impact on the community,” Raun said. “They’re can-do kind of people (who) had a lot of skills and see solutions to problems.”

Will Deaderick, a rising junior majoring in statistics and mathematics, signed up for the project to gain research experience. While he had previously conducted plenty of statistical analysis, it was the first time he had the opportunity to work with previously unanalyzed real-world data.

“The project introduced me to the research process and encouraged me to apply to some summer research programs,” Deaderick said. “I’m currently participating in a research program at UCLA, and I’m thrilled that my HART experience was rewarding enough to encourage me to apply and pursue further research.”

Raun is currently overseeing John Pederson, a Rice graduate student studying environmental analysis and decision-making who is working on the project this summer and is the project lead. He is currently developing a prototype of a remediation system to target dangerous particulates in the area near U.S. 59 and working toward the installation of a system to monitor and reflect pollution levels, which will include lights that report pollution levels in real time.

Raun said the goal is both to educate residents in the neighborhood about motor-vehicle pollution and to examine ways to either reduce pollution from the freeway or keep it from moving into the neighborhood.

The project was supported by Rice University’s Center for Civic Leadership, Air Alliance Houston, the City of Houston Health Department, the Texas Department of Transportation, Houston Wilderness, Environmental Protection Agency and a grant from the Baxter Trust. To request a copy of the report, email

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About Amy McCaig

Amy is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.