Pollution Detectives Make the Invisible Visible
Dr. Francis Koster is on a mission for environmental sustainability, and it’s personal.
President of the non-profit organization, The Pollution Detectives, Fran recently shared his wide breadth of wisdom and knowledge with Trakref. “My life’s mission has emerged over time, shaped by some unique experiences”
“While serving in the Peace Corps in Africa, in a small village of grass-roofed huts, right after I moved in, a 4-year-old neighbor girl who had shyly welcomed me a few days earlier died in my arms. I later learned that she had contracted a disease as a result of contaminated drinking water. Although the village mourned, no one appeared surprised. But I was grief-stricken, and angry. The fact that this death by pollution was accepted as almost normal upset me deeply.”
From that moment, Fran has been a pioneer through multiple environmental frontiers, beginning with exploring the benefits of renewable energy to public health and the economy.
More recently, Fran has come to realize the enormous impact refrigerant emissions have on the global environment and climate change. Trakref and the Pollution Detectives often work together toward the same goal: reducing the release and dangers of harmful refrigerant gases into our atmosphere. Trakref fully advocates Fran’s mission to engage “Citizen Activists,” in order to assist specialists as they conduct scientific tasks, such as observations or measurements, and engage visitors or local communities in education efforts. Like Fran, we are utterly committed to solving problems using activist groups of concerned citizens.
How did The Pollution Detectives Happen?
Fran began his Peace Corps stint – and a lifetime of service – when that organization was less than five years old. His time there clearly directed his path for the next six decades. “Even after I returned home, news items about pollution and its impact on innocent victims both here and abroad continued to haunt me.”
“Over the years, I have learned a lot about the difference between ‘price,’ that is, what you pay in your electric bill, and ‘cost’ which includes the externalized damage which members of society pay while polluters profit. For example, I was shocked to learn that for every 12 jobs in the coal industry, one American dies from pollution produced by mining, shipping, and burning it each year.” Examples of true ‘cost’ surround us, like recent EPA announcements of Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) and Perfluoro Octane Sulfonate (PFOS) which is now being found in most of America’s water, causing decreased fertility, developmental delays in children, increases risk of prostate, kidney, and testicular cancers, and increases risk of obesity.
While earning his master’s degree in the 1970’s at the University of Massachusetts’ Program for The Study of The Future, Fran began studying what America might look like if all of its energy came from renewables. He examined both the technical opportunities and the employment implications of making one county in Massachusetts energy self-sufficient. This work, known as The Franklin County Study, garnered national attention from the renewable energy community.
The attention got white hot when President Ronald Reagan wrote a newspaper column citing Fran’s study and its implications for ending America’s dependency on imported oil.
This subsequently led to Fran being recruited under President Carter’s administration to set up and run the nation’s largest renewable energy program of that era, located at the Tennessee Valley Authority. After working with the TVA, Fran returned to academia, focusing his research on why leaders do not listen to real-world, science-based warnings. (Sounds a bit familiar) His startling emphasis zeroed in on warnings about the contamination of, and threats to, the basic life support systems of air, water, food, and fuel, and their stunning implications on human life. He was awarded his doctorate in 1982.
Fast forward to 1987 when Fran was recruited to help grow the Nemours Children’s Clinics, at the time a small Florida-based foundation with one children’s hospital. “Now it is one of the nation’s largest systems of pediatric healthcare, with two hospitals hosting almost 2 million patient visits each year in 80 locations by 900 doctors,” Fran says.
According to Fran, the work he did at Nemours, ”helped me understand the impact of external threats such as pollution to the fetus and developing child. I became interested in the geo-mapping of disease clusters…paying particular attention to identifying techniques that help both average citizens and leaders understand the price in illness and death our children and loved ones have paid when leadership ignores information about public health threats from pollution.”
This is the common denominator of all Fran Koster has done and continues to do. “Throughout this journey, I have been amazed and delighted by the change that can result when citizens – of all political persuasions – become able to reveal invisible threats and come together to protect loved ones.”
“Invisible pollution in very, very small amounts can have a life-altering impact on the people who come in contact with it,’ Fran explains. Continuing with this powerful analogy, “If the drug Cialis gives men erections when the active ingredient in a single pill is only 30 parts per billion, and the anti-asthma drug Albuterol does its magic using a mere 2.1 parts per billion of active ingredient, we can intuit the impact that small amounts of other chemicals have on human health.”
New Technologies = New Information
Fortunately, Fran sees the emergence of new, inexpensive scientific tools as an opportunity to enable “Citizen Scientists” to detect and identify invisible pollutants and their sources. These safe-to-use electronic tools, coupled with the internet environment and capabilities allows the collection of data, the distribution of these findings and the education of the public to bring about how to bring about change.
This is what led to Fran’s current project, The Pollution Detectives. The organization loans pollution detection equipment with the goal of ‘Making the Invisible Visible’. This is an enormous project that became all the more important to Fran – and Trakref – as he became more involved in understanding the impact of refrigerants. Now, Fran has a history of loaning this powerful devices to assist people in finding atmospheric problems in the hyper-local environment. Trakref believes so much in this mission that we have donated to the Pollution Detectives in order for them to obtain even more equipment for Citizen Scientist testing.
While Fran sees the effects of environmental damage increasing, he also observes, “our ability to protect our fellow citizens from suffering birth defects, brain damage, cancer, a shortened life span, and years of sickness, is increasing if people will act on what is revealed.”
After conducting extensive research as to what the most effective audience would be to begin making real change, Fran discovered something incredible. “I learned that one out of five Americans either attends or works in a K through 12 public or private school. That’s shocking number. One out of five! Then I found that the EPA declared that half of all American schools have indoor environmental issues. And this is more common in older schools located in low income rural and urban school districts, resulting in higher levels of pollutants and damage to the already struggling children spending hours a day there.”
It was at this point that Fran began a strategy to improve the environmental health and environmental footprint of American schools. “The best part of the story is that if the issues we surface are fixed, school performance on statewide standardized testing goes up by one or two letter grades as a direct result of better air quality. The trajectory of the child’s future improves. Also, the property values around the schools rises between 5% and 17%, which means the local city’s tax base goes way up. So now we can align the politicians and the civil servants around the issue of school pollution without being seen as being on one end of the political spectrum or other.”
“Our ongoing goal is to engage with science teachers and their students about local environmental threats they live under every day and teach them locally implementable solutions that have a huge potential for dramatic impact.
Now, Fran urgently works to bring awareness to the threats of Climate Change posed by the old school buildings’ air conditioning systems, which leak a lot of refrigerant gasses. These leaking gasses have a 1000 to 7,000 times larger damaging impact on Climate Change than CO2. “We want local leadership to know that if their equipment is old and leaking, and they fix or replace it, they immediately reduce refrigerant leaks, they get cost benefits, they slow down Climate Change – and the entire process is done with experiential learning techniques by all the kids who get involved.
And there’s more to this story, as Fran is desperately trying to get schools to listen. For schools to receive federal funding, they must meet minimal student attendance requirements, usually about 180 days a year. If a student does not attend the needed number of days, the school system does not get the federal and state funds distributed based on attendance. “The county I live in lost almost $11 million last year because of school absentee rates,” Fran continues. “Why did they lose it? Half of all absenteeism is due to either diabetes or asthma. So not only is high CO2 ratio in the classrooms lowering grades, but the school itself loses $11 million in annual budget because of airborne illness and pollution. And because so many students are not there, the average grade of the school drops because the way they standardized the tests is to count everyone, there or not. So that absentees bring the grade average of the school down and consequently, the funding the schools receive.
So, what would Fran like to see happen with The Pollution Detectives and its impact over the next few years? “I’ve set it up as a lending library of tools, including indoor air quality meters, thermal cameras, radon detectors, water quality testing, refrigerant emission detectors and so forth. But that’s not scalable. On my own, I can’t run a lending library with hundreds of thousands of pieces of equipment. What I have done is create a model program whereby a civic group, school system, or perhaps a public library could replicate it by acquiring and lend these devices and conduct citizen activism and advocacy all on their own. With these tools they can conduct hyper local investigations and report their findings to an online database, visible to everyone.
This is Just the Beginning
The Pollution Detectives website exhibits several communities that have repaired indoor air quality in schools and now report that school grades went up, teacher and student absenteeism went down, and morale increased among other measurables. “So, what we need to do is make others aware of these replicable success stories,” Fran declares. “We want everyone to come together to make the invisible, visible.”
Fran believes optimistically in the future of our young people and their ability to save the environment we’re leaving with them, stating, “Working together we can save the bodies and the brains of millions of people, including the most vulnerable among us.”
If you would like to know more or get involved locally in your area with the effective work of The Pollution Detectives, Fran makes this request: “We need more citizen detectives who want to improve the health and well-being of their families and communities. We offer internships – and with the right circumstances, academic credit – and other volunteer opportunities. And we are looking for writers, web developers, social media experts, environmental scientists, curricula developers, and people concerned about or skilled in health-related fields to join us. So, if you’re engaged with a group like Girl Scouts, Future Farmers, Rotary Clubs, Elks, or a “retired” person who has under-used skills and time? Reach out – we need you!”
If you are interested in doing some pollution detection, getting updates, or in supporting their effort: please fill out this form on The Pollution Detectives website.
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