Moss may hold answer to Duwamish Valley air pollution

When the West Seattle bridge shut down, it became a nuisance for thousands who relied on it for a daily commute. In the Duwamish Valley, it meant more air pollution for a community that’s struggled to overcome issues they’ve witnessed for generations.

The workarounds sent thousands of commuters through neighborhoods in the Duwamish Valley. In recent weeks the backups have grown longer thanks to heavy-duty trucks heading to the seaport. A post-pandemic boom in retail shipments have only added to the growing number of diesel engines pumping out particulate matter and air toxins that locals were concerned about even before the increased traffic.

“This is so important for our community,” explains Carmen Martinez, the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition’s Youth Corps manager.

Martinez is standing inside a community center in South Park. Several dozen teens donning bright yellow vests have their eyes locked on her.

“It’s very meticulous work, and we can’t screw anything up,” she says before walking the teens through their assignment.

The students are volunteers all tasked with a pretty big duty: they’re taking part in a citizen-science project that will ultimately help them determine what neighborhoods are in dire need of air quality monitoring.

For some time it’s been known that residents living in South Park and Georgetown are at greater risk of breathing in polluted air. Thanks to the neighborhood’s proximity to industry, the seaport and constant traffic of diesel trucks, there’s a number of environmental exposure factors. The state’s “environmental health disparity map” listed diesel emissions, toxic releases and particulate matter pollution at the highest levels encompassing this area back in 2018.

That’s why the DRCC has been fighting to get air monitors in the community. Current monitoring stations are far away from the homes, and the people, that organizers in this region fear are most affected.

It’s also why the teens are involved. They’re searching for solutions, and they may just find them in a place you wouldn’t suspect: moss.

Moss is abundant in the Pacific Northwest, so it may be easier to overlook. Scientists, however, say it can act like a sponge and that by collecting the moss they can collect data on what’s in the air they’re breathing.

“It’s important to prove we have pollution in our neighborhood,” said Wala Adbin, a student from Denny International Middle School who got involved for the first time in May.

Adbin is in the field when she shows our camera crew the type of moss they’re collecting.

“It’s darker than the other kind,” she says, explaining why our first stop wasn’t part of the collection of samples they’re taking this time.

The teens each take turns picking the samples, logging data on where it was found and taking pictures of the location for extra information. All of their work will eventually be turned over to college students who will test the samples in a lab.

“The youth are the ones really doing the hands-on work,” said Perez, the adult leading this team. “They’re collecting all of these valuable materials, which I think is awesome.”

Perez helps double-check their work and guides them through the day. After they’ve collected samples throughout their chosen work site, she gathers them up to ask how they felt about the work and what they’ve learned.

That’s when Nico, a high school student, explains he felt enlightened. He said he never realized how bad the pollution was before adding that he’s happy he volunteered because it taught him a lot about teamwork.

Therein lie the connection points DRCC is making. The students are creating their own solutions, but they’re getting opportunities few others their age would -- taking a negative and finding positive outcomes.

It may be some time until the data from the moss, and eventually the air monitoring equipment slated to follow-up, give them the answers they’re looking for. But in this community no one is waiting around for someone to figure it out for them -- as Paulina Lopez, the DRCC’s executive director, told us: they don’t have that type of time.

“When we say, ‘Raise your hand if you have asthma,’ a majority of them raise their hand,” said Lopez. “Some say, ‘I thought asthma was normal because everyone has it.’”