A Community-Centered Approach to Air Quality Assessment  

A Community-Centered Approach to Air Quality Assessment  

A Community-Centered Approach to Air Quality Assessment 

May 25, 2023

By Elyse DeFranco

Air Quality
Community-centered Research

Researchers from DRI and UNLV teamed up with a Las Vegas community concerned about a neighboring asphalt plant to measure their air quality  

For communities living with industrial plants and factories nearby, how can they verify that the air they are breathing is safe? For one Las Vegas community, the answer was to turn to researchers at DRI and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, to help them measure their air quality and determine how their air is impacted by emissions from a nearby asphalt plant. The research team was led by Lung-Wen Antony Chen, Ph.D., associate research professor at both DRI and UNLV, who is also Director of the UNLV Urban Air Quality Lab.   

Chen and his team published their findings April 10 in the journal Atmospheric Environment. The study used inexpensive air quality sensors placed strategically around Las Vegas’ Spring Valley High School to measure overall air quality and untangle how much, and when, the neighboring asphalt plant influenced particulate air pollution — namely PM2.5 and PM10. The researchers found that although the school’s air pollution never exceeded EPA limits, asphalt plant emissions contributed to PM2.5 and PM10 by as much as 28% and 50%, respectively, in a single day. Wind speed and direction had a large impact on how and when the plant’s emissions wafted toward the school. The researchers say the study can act as an example for one way that communities can address air quality and environmental justice concerns. 

Below is a Q&A with Dr. Chen about the research, which has been lightly edited for clarity and length.   

DRI: What inspired this study?  

Chen: In 2017, I got a phone call from a community member living at the Lantern Garden apartment complex just east of this asphalt plant. He said a lot of community members were concerned about the dust and fumes generated by the plant, because they could see the dust buildup and accumulate in their yards. They wondered if there was any health effect from this facility. They had shared their concerns with the Clark County Air Quality Department, who said they didn’t need to be concerned because air quality standards weren’t being exceeded. However, the community wasn’t convinced because they could feel the dust every day.   

Spring Valley High School is also right next to the asphalt plant, and it has 2,500 students. The school was also concerned because the plant got a major contract from the city around this time to supply the asphalt and other construction materials for a major highway expansion project in Las Vegas, so they were scaling up their operations.   

From my point of view, the first thing we needed to do was to set up a monitoring program to evaluate the contribution of the facility to the local community as best we could. Of course, being in the desert, dust is always blowing in from all over, so we needed to design a way to measure this rigorously. This would help the community understand their local air quality better, as the closest monitoring station run by the Air Quality Department is 2 or 3 kilometers away.   

A graphical abstract of the research showing the location of Spring Valley High School near an asphalt plant, with wind direction impacting the amount of emissions that waft toward the school

A satellite image showing the Wells Cargo asphalt plant in Las Vegas, with Spring Valley High School and neighboring communities impacted by the plant’s emissions when they are downwind. Credit: Roy et al., 2023

DRI: How did you design the air quality monitoring program to sift out emissions directly tied to the asphalt plant?  

Chen: We did a pilot study for two weeks and then decided to work with the community to set up two sites, one downwind of the asphalt plant and one upwind of the plant. The upwind site was not really impacted by the facility, and the downwind site was. So, by looking at the difference between the two sites and the wind direction, we could determine the contributions from the asphalt plant. The two sites were less than 1 kilometer from each other, so their background levels of pollution were identical. We also conducted dispersion modeling to relate dust emissions with contributions under different wind speeds and directions.   

We talked to the school, and they were happy to let us set up our monitoring station on their rooftop, and another community member helped us set up the other site. We had the air quality sensors in place from March through August 2019, so we could measure air quality over different seasons, wind speeds, and wind directions. We collected data every five minutes over this period, including the PM2.5 and PM10 concentrations.   

Interestingly, right after we started our monitoring, the asphalt plant did a few things that seemed to improve their operation. They started covering up some of their piles, watering more to reduce dust emissions, and built a large wall around the facility. That could help prevent dust from being transported downwind. 

 I could say that even before we reported our results, we had already helped improve conditions for the community because the plant felt pressured to do something.   


DRI: Why is it important to measure PM2.5 and PM10?   

Chen: You can have different types of health outcomes from PM2.5 and PM10. PM2.5 is more likely to penetrate deeper into the respiratory tract, where it can cause lung diseases, whereas PM10 is more likely to stay in the upper airway.   


A satellite image of the asphalt and surrounding area in Las Vegas

Satellite imagery of the Wells Cargo asphalt plant and surrounding area, with wind speed directions highlighted. Credit: Roy et al., 2023

DRI: Tell us about your results.   

Chen: Well, the data we published was from 2019, which was before COVID-19 happened. This ended up changing a lot of things, and when I go back to the site now, I actually see that the conditions improved dramatically. 

In our paper, we conclude that there is no exceedance to EPA air quality standards. But you can also see that there are significant contributions from the asphalt plant, 10 to 15% or so on average, depending on which metrics you look at. But in a single day, it can be up to 50%. That’s typically on a windy day, when the background air pollution is low, and then you can see a major contribution from the asphalt plant.    

Even though air quality standards are met, the air quality standard is just one guideline. The World Health Organization (WHO) has a much lower guideline than the EPA, because even at very low levels, particulate matter can have health effects with longer exposure. So, we still have to try everything we can to reduce any contributions. Our study proves that the asphalt plant can do something to help with air quality.   

Of course, it’s not just the facility that can reduce their emissions, as our data show that on average, 85% of the particulate air pollution is from other sources. Only a collective effort can further improve air quality conditions. We’ve come a long way in Las Vegas – air quality is much better than it was 20 or 30 years ago, that’s for sure. The Air Quality Department has done a good job, but that doesn’t mean there’s no room for improvement.   


DRI: You also ran some computer simulations to better understand the data from the air quality sensors, right?  

Chen: Yes, we needed to run a model to see whether some of the assumptions we made in our data analysis were valid or not. We wanted to understand, for example, if the difference between the upwind and downwind sites could really be attributed to the asphalt plant and how such differences are related to emissions. We used a computational fluid dynamics model to accomplish this, which helped validate our data to make the study more robust.  

Graph showing daily averages of PM 2.5 and PM 10 attributed to the asphalt plant.

Above: Graph showing daily averages for (a) PM 2.5 and (b) PM 10-2.5 attributed to the asphalt plant. The highest proportions of asphalt plant PM 2.5 (28%) and PM 10 (50%) occurred on April 10, 2019 and April 22, 2019, respectively. Credit: Roy et al., 2023

DRI: How can this study help other communities who are concerned about their air quality? 

Chen: I think the method we established can be used in similar situations because it’s relatively low cost, and with a quick turnaround time. Across the country, a lot of communities have concerns about industrial facilities nearby. Using this method, they can quantify whether there really is a significant contribution to their air quality from a specific source. It’s important to communicate risk in a transparent way and based on evidence – we can’t just tell them there’s nothing to worry about.   

The low-cost air quality sensors we used weren’t available even ten years ago, at least not with the kind of precision and accuracy we have available now. This makes these types of studies more feasible. To have the best results, though, these sensors need to be calibrated correctly and regularly. 

Diurnal variations of PM2.5 and PM10-2.5 attributed to (a) urban background and (b) asphalt plant at SVHS on weekdays or weekends averaged throughout the monitoring period.

Hourly variations of PM2.5 and PM10-2.5 attributed to (a) urban background and (b) asphalt plant at SVHS on weekdays or weekends averaged throughout the monitoring period. Credit: Roy at al., 2023

DRI: How did the community respond to your findings?  

Chen: The school was initially really worried about the situation, but when we presented them with our results, they said they are less concerned now. I think this is also because they could see that the asphalt plant was making improvements. They saw the wall being built, and they could see the plant changing some of their daily operations. We first presented our results to them in late 2019, and then of course the country entered pandemic mode and everyone’s concerns shifted.   


DRI: Do you have any planned next steps for this line of research?  

Chen: Well, it will be good to conduct a follow-up study as business resumes after the pandemic, if resources allow. Currently, there are very few low-cost sensors that are used by local communities in Las Vegas. People can actually set these up in their backyard, and report air quality and share the data. The more sensors we have in the community, the better understanding of the spatial distribution we’ll have of air quality conditions. In Salt Lake City, for example, their metro area and population are almost the same size as Las Vegas, and they have hundreds of these types of sensors across the city. But in Las Vegas, we have less than 30 now. Over the next few years, I will be trying to expand that network in some way and help community members calibrate their sensors in my lab and make sense of their data.   

More Information

The full study, High time-resolution fenceline air quality sensing and dispersion modeling for environmental justice-centered source attribution, is available from Atmospheric Environment. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.atmosenv.2023.119778   


Study authors include: Prosun Roy (Univ. of Nevada, Las Vegas), L.W. Antony Chen (Univ. of Nevada, Las Vegas/DRI), Aman Gebreselassie (Univ. of Nevada, Las Vegas), Yi Li (SailBri Cooper Inc.), Judith Chow (DRI), John Watson (DRI), and Yi-Tung Chen (Univ. of Nevada, Las Vegas) 

Come Rain or Shine: Rainwater Harvesting for Food Production in the Face of Drought

Come Rain or Shine: Rainwater Harvesting for Food Production in the Face of Drought

Come Rain or Shine: Rainwater Harvesting for Food Production in the Face of Drought

April 21, 2023

By Guadalupe Alvarez

DRI Communications Intern

Food Sovereignty
Rainwater Harvesting

A Q&A with researcher Brianda Hernandez Rosales

Brianda Hernandez Rosales, M.Sc., is the Water Quality Program Coordinator for the Bishop Paiute Tribe and a research assistant for the Native Waters on Arid Lands (NWAL) project, a coalition group that partners research scientists with indigenous communities across the Western U.S. Last May, she earned her master’s degree in Hydrology from the Graduate Program of Hydrologic Sciences at the University of Nevada, Reno. She published her thesis work Assessing the Feasibility of Rooftop Rainwater Harvesting for Food Production in Northwestern Arizona on the Hualapai Indian Reservation,” in the journal Sustainability in February.  

As the Southwest continues to experience drought, renewable water resources are crucial in ensuring climate resilience and food security for rural communities. In this interview, researcher Brianda Hernandez Rosales breaks down rainwater harvesting (RWH) and its role in indigenous food sovereignty in the face of climate change. This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.  

DRI: What led you to work with Native Waters on Arid Lands? 

Brianda: I started graduate school in 2020, at the height of the pandemic. Dr. Alexandra Lutz was my advisor. She and Dr. Maureen McCarthy started Native Waters on Arid Lands in 2015. What they do is work with indigenous communities across the West to partner them with research scientists that want to provide their skill sets to these communities to help them become more climate resilient. Dr. Lutz was the one who suggested I work with the coalition group, because she knew I wanted to do applied research and work with underserved communities.  

Following my graduate research, they asked me if I could produce videos to share my findings about rainwater harvesting. The plan is to put them on their website for interested parties, either tribal communities, liaisons for the government, or other researchers, so they can see what I did and decide if they want to do it too. There will be a total of six DIY videos based off my research. The videos will cover: the project overview, rainwater harvesting equation, introduction to the AquaCrop model, the area that can be cultivated solely using the captured rainwater, the cost and maintenance of a rainwater harvesting system, and an example from my research.  

DRI: What is climate resilience and why is research in climate resiliency important in the face of climate change, especially for tribal communities? 

Brianda: Climate resiliency is preparing communities for the effects of climate change. These impacts are happening now, and they are going to continue happening and are going to get worse. But what this would do is prepare these communities to have the resources and the tools for them to reduce their impacts. Tribal and other rural communities do not have the funding and resources available to state and federal agencies. A lot of science and research focuses on big metropolitan cities, so a lot of these resources are shifted towards that instead of the communities that might need it the most. Some of the issues rural communities face include water quality, water quantity, food deserts and a lack of food sovereignty. 

Portrait of Brianda Hernandez Rosales

Brianda Hernandez Rosales, M.Sc. Credit: Native Waters on Arid Land

DRI: What advice do you have for scientists working with tribal communities? 

Brianda: One of the most important things is to learn to listen. We have been trained as scientists to follow these specific methods for us to get to the answer or to get to something that we’re looking for. But I think one of the biggest things is to listen and help address the questions that people are asking you to address. In my research, the Federally Recognized Tribal Extension Program Agent (FRTEP) for the Hualapai in northwestern Arizona had approached us with this question: “We have a new building, and we’re wondering if it’s feasible to collect rainwater. Can you make an assessment?” And so that’s where my research came in. I did this feasibility study that looked at past and future climate to see if it’s cost effective to implement a rainwater harvesting system on the reservation. Scientists have these large skill sets that we can provide to communities that might need it and if someone needs something answered, I think it’s important for us to be willing to do that. Helping these communities, creating a working relationship, and continuing that open communication and that listening aspect is crucial.  

DRI: What was your experience like working for Native Waters on Arid Lands and the Hualapai community? 

Brianda: I mainly worked with the FRTEP agent for the Hualapai tribe. But with my work now, working with the Bishop Paiute Tribe, a lot of it is just respecting the culture. Every tribe is different. They are going to have different priorities, different questions they want to answer. There’s a lot of ecological and traditional knowledge that these tribes have and staying open and thinking differently as a scientist broadens the way you approach these different questions and research topics. 

DRI: Can you tell me more about your work with the Bishop Paiute Tribe and what you are currently working on? 

Brianda: I started with the Bishop Paiute Tribe in October. I was super excited to get this position and it’s been super fun. Working under a tribal government and working with neighboring tribes has been great because it’s very tight knit, but I feel like I still have a lot to learn, and I still have a lot to give to this program. But if it eventually gets to the point where I have exhausted every single thing that I could possibly give – and I don’t know if that will happen anytime soon– I think that I would definitely be interested in working with Hispanic communities. There’s a lot of great work that’s being done, especially in the Central Valley, but I think a lot of it has to come down to advocating for these communities to get access to clean water. So, I’m interested in that.  

I am the Water Quality Program Coordinator, so I manage the ambient water on the reservation. That includes monitoring issues affecting water quality in creeks or ponds on the reservation. I am the one who is in charge of addressing those issues, as well as preventing nonpoint source pollution on the reservation waters, education, and outreach, and working with different departments and programs to help environmental efforts meet EPA requirements, as well as the Tribe’s expectations.  

DRI: Why is this line of research important to you? 

Brianda: When I decided to go for a graduate degree, I wanted to help communities with my research. What satisfies me as a scientist is knowing that my work is helping someone as soon as possible. There is a lot of science that gets propelled forward through all this amazing stuff that people are doing, but for me, I felt like I needed something that was more connected to my community. Luckily, I’ve been able to work with these amazing tribal communities, but there’s also so much going on in the Central Valley with water quality issues and how it’s affecting farmworkers. And maybe it’s a selfish thing for me to think that it’s going to make me feel better about the work that I do, but it makes it easy to get up in the morning and go do it.  

The cool thing about working with tribal communities is that because they are sovereign entities, a lot of the red tape that you would get with state agencies or federal agencies can get moved a lot quicker. You probably don’t have the funding. You probably don’t have the staff, but I think it’s kind of fun to try to make it work. It’s a lot of moving pieces, and there’s a lot of things that I’m still learning and will continue to learn– I don’t think I’ll ever stop learning while working with these communities. It’s a different way of seeing things. As a scientist you can see a creek and know this is the data, this is what we’re seeing, but then you can also work with people that look at the whole thing; like the plants, how they’re communicating with each other or different information that’s being exchanged.  

Brianda standing in a creek while conducting research

Brianda collects water samples in the South Fork of Bishop Creek. Credit: Sabrina Barlow

DRI: What do you hope for in terms of climate resiliency in the Southwest’s future? 

Brianda: When it comes to drought, I think we need to be prepared to mitigate dry years, through methods like rainwater harvesting. Infrastructure is a big part of this, we need to design new buildings that you can harvest water from. For scientists, engineers, and communities, innovation will be one of the major things that will prepare us to deal with climate change.  

DRI: What is rainwater harvesting, and what makes a building suitable for harvesting rainwater? 

Brianda: Rainwater harvesting is the collection and concentration of water into storable equipment that you can then use later. Any surface area can be used for rainwater harvesting, but you do need to be in an environment that gets at least a few inches of rain per year. You need the infrastructure to store that water: a decent surface area, and somewhere to put that water once you’ve concentrated it through gutter systems.  

Pretty much any building can sustain rainwater harvesting, but some are better than others. Metal roofs are more efficient because water will flow off them quickly. Wood roofs absorb some of the water, but it’s still possible to collect water from a wood roof. I think one of the biggest things that’s going to drive our resilience to climate change is the ability to store water and rainwater in wet years to save it for other days when we don’t have any.  

A small building with metal roof being considered for rainwater harvesting.

Buildings considered for rainwater harvesting in Peach Springs, Arizona.

Credit: Brianda Hernandez Rosales

A small building in Peach Springs, Arizona

DRI: What types of crops were you looking at, and how much acreage of crops could be potentially harvested using rainwater? 

Brianda: When I went to the Hualapai reservation, I was invited to look at their garden, which had corn, sunflowers, and potatoes. I was primarily focused on corn because that is one of the biggest staples in the southwest. When I did the feasibility for their 4-H building, I was able to use this model from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) that looks at local weather patterns and how these impact crop growth and irrigation needs. In the Southwest, we have monsoon rains during the summer season. I looked at dry, wet, and normal precipitation years, to predict how much additional water would be needed to keep crops alive. With the amount of water that we are collecting between May and September of a normal year, about 81 kilograms of corn can be harvested–and that’s just from one building. The Tribe wanted to use this water to irrigate their community garden to maintain food sovereignty. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed these issues in rural communities that don’t have access to healthy and culturally significant foods. The Hualapai reservation is about 50 miles east of the main town, which is Kingman, Arizona. What I discovered with my research was that they could irrigate a decent area for crops using rainwater alone. Of course, this is dependent on how you’re setting up your system, whether you’re using drip irrigation, and how much rain falls during that summer. 

Brianda looking at crops in the Hualapai community garden

Brianda examining crops in the Hualapai Community Garden. Credit: Native Waters on Arid Land

DRI: How is your research being used by the Hualapai Tribe? Are there any updates on wanting to move forward with your method? 

Brianda: The last thing I heard was that they were going to implement this project. The FERTP agent for the Hualapai tribe was super excited. The cool thing about their system is that all they have to do is purchase the cisterns to store the water. Purchasing the cisterns, that’s the most expensive part of a rainwater harvesting system. And then they need to decide how they’re going to distribute that water for irrigation. Their plan is to get their rainwater harvesting equipment in place this spring to hopefully collect some monsoonal rains in the summer. 

DRI: Is there anything else important you would like to mention? 

Brianda: If you are able to work with communities that need the help–and I say this more towards research students that are struggling to find that path or know exactly what they want to do – I think one of the biggest things is to explore and work with communities that might need it. You might be able to find a passion or a calling. I hope that these videos that I’m creating will help anyone who wants to know more about rainwater harvesting. These videos are targeted for audiences that may or may not have a scientific background.  

More Information

Brianda’s videos have yet to be published on the Native Waters on Arid Lands website. To learn more, check out the Native Climate Youtube Channel. For more information on Brianda and her research visit NWAL News and Blogs.

DRI Student Interns Explore Northern Nevada’s Natural Hazards

DRI Student Interns Explore Northern Nevada’s Natural Hazards

DRI Student Interns Explore Northern Nevada’s Natural Hazards

April 3, 2023

By Guadalupe Alvarez
DRI Communications Intern

Natural Hazards
Wildfire Risk
Flood Risk

DRI’s Behind the Science Blog continues with the fourth and last installment of our fall 2022 Research Immersion Internship Series 

This fall, DRI brought eleven students from Nevada’s community and state colleges to the Las Vegas and Reno campuses for a paid, immersive research experience. Over the course of the 16-week program, students worked under the mentorship of DRI faculty members to learn about the process of using scientific research to solve real-world problems. 

Our Behind the Science Blog is highlighting each research team’s accomplishments over a series of four stories. Previous stories covered: Tiffany Pereira’s interns as they tracked elusive desert tortoises in the desert of Las Vegas; Erick Bandala’s student interns on their quest to find solutions for communities struggling with high concentrations of fluorides in their drinking water; and Braimah Apambire’s interns seeking ways to improve clean drinking water access in Ghanaian communities

In this story, we highlight the work of Phillips Nguyen and Alexius Jessup-Raju, two students from Truckee Meadows Community College, as they explore natural hazards and their impacts on house ownership and aquatic environments.  

Student Researchers: Phillips Nguyen and Alexius Jessup-Raju 

Faculty mentor: Steve Bacon, Ph.D., Associate Research Professor of Geology


As the driest state in the nation, we might assume that flooding is the least of Nevada’s concerns compared to drought and wildfires. But throughout our state’s history, flooding has proven to be of major concern in the Reno-Tahoe area. From flash flooding to snowmelt in spring, Northern Nevadans are no stranger to the warning signs. Despite flood management tips and tricks, an extra step is needed to understand and prepare for the long-term effects of natural hazards. While there are many resources dedicated to maintaining a flood-resistant community, environmental and geologic data are fundamental in reconstructing past events to inform our future. 

Under the mentorship of Steve Bacon, student interns Phillips Nguyen and Alexius Jessup-Raju were tasked with identifying natural hazards to make assessments related to homeownership and property development in the Reno-Tahoe area. Using Google Earth, the interns were able to create, store, view, and interact with the geographic landscape and identify what natural hazards may be in proximity to the site studied. 


Natural hazard assessments are used to identify areas where drought, wildfires, floods, and other natural events are likely to occur, how often they occur, and how severe the effects are on surrounding communities. Risk assessments are used to combine this information with that of human activity and property development. These assessments are crucial for businesses and homeowners as well as other land-use decisions.  

However, the process of identifying and assessing natural hazards using geographic information systems (GIS) is no easy feat. The interns ran into challenges, but ultimately learned how to approach trial and error in the scientific process.  

The first step in the process was finding a geological map they could use. From there, the interns referenced the research site’s coordinates to determine its precise location. Ultimately, the interns mapped a site based on its location within 100-year flood and fault zones and found that the site had a history of landslides and flooding. The site was also forested, making it prone to potential wildfires.  

“We found that the site has a history of landslides,” said intern Phillips Nguyen. “That concerns me if I want to buy a property because I would have to ensure that the property is protected. There might also be some flooding in the potential future since this site also has a history of flooding in the past. And the nearby faults can potentially cause seismic activity in the area [which] indirectly affects the viability of the site.”   

“This was a great location to learn about geologic hazards and how they may impact a site,” says Bacon, the interns’ faculty mentor, on how he identified the location for the interns to research. “Ultimately, the identification of specific geologic hazards needs to be considered when making a geologic hazard assessment.” 

The Loyalton fire creeps down a hillside in Washoe County.

The Loyalton fire creeps down a hillside in Washoe County in September, 2020. 

Credit: Jonathon Cook-Fisher/DRI.


Flooding and other natural hazard events directly affect aquatic environments. The two interns looked at the impacts of natural hazards within the Silver State’s beloved blue gem– Lake Tahoe.  

“The biggest impact on water quality is by humans,” said intern Alexius Jessup-Raju.  

The types of water pollutants that can impact ecosystems during natural hazards range from garbage and ash, to fires, bacteria, and invasive species. Nitrogen and Phosphorus are other big pollutants that can result from fertilizer runoff that enters the lake from runoff and groundwater. “They can cause methemoglobinemia [which] inhibits your blood cells from producing oxygen,” Jessup-Raju said. 

Aside from human health effects, polluted water can dramatically impact the health of underwater ecosystems. 

“Phosphorous can cause algal pollutants to get out of control,” Alexius said. “When the algae die, they can cause dead zones — which are areas with no oxygen — and then other things can’t live there.” 


By focusing on a specific site, determining if that site is viable for residential ownership, and understanding how water quality impacts aquatic environments in the Reno-Tahoe area, the two student interns were able to learn about geologic and environmental data and apply them to natural hazard assessments. 

“That took some time because I wasn’t familiar with using Google Earth, so it was an experience using this software,” Nguyen said. 

In addition to helping mold his interest in field work and water quality, Nguyen also noted that the experience “Taught me a lot about what my interests were because I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do as a career, so this internship was really valuable.” 

Intern Phillips Nguyen presents his learning experiences from his internship.

Above Left: Intern Phillips Nguyen presents his learning experiences from his internship.

Intern Alexius Jessup-Raju presents sources of aquatic pollution for Lake Tahoe.

Above Right: Intern Alexius Jessup-Raju presents sources of aquatic pollution for Lake Tahoe.

More Information

To learn more about the DRI Research Immersion Internship, go to https://www.dri.edu/immersion/.

DRI Student Interns Join Efforts to Improve Drinking Water Access in Ghanaian Communities

DRI Student Interns Join Efforts to Improve Drinking Water Access in Ghanaian Communities

DRI Student Interns Join Efforts to Improve Drinking Water Access in Ghanaian Communities 

March 21, 2023
By Guadalupe Alvarez
DRI Communications Intern
Water Treatment

DRI’s Behind the Science Blog continues with the third installment of our fall 2022 Research Immersion Internship Series 

This fall, DRI brought eleven students from Nevada’s community and state colleges to the Las Vegas and Reno campuses for a paid, immersive research experience. Over the course of the 16-week program, students worked under the mentorship of DRI faculty members to learn about the process of using scientific research to solve real-world problems. 

Our Behind the Science Blog is highlighting each research team’s accomplishments over a series of five stories. Previous stories covered Tiffany Pereira’s interns as they tracked elusive desert tortoises in the desert of Las Vegas, and Erick Bandala’s student interns on their quest to find solutions for communities struggling with high concentrations of fluorides in their drinking water. 

In this story, we highlight the work of two student interns and their research in international Water, Sanitation, & Hygiene (WASH) development issues in Ghana. These students are building on decades of DRI-led research focused on improving access to clean drinking water in Ghanaian communities. 

DRI researchers installing and maintaining drinking water wells in Ghana.
Above: The CIWAS program installs and maintains drinking water wells in Ghanaian communities. Photo credit: DRI.
A child pours fills jugs with well water in Ghana.
Student Researchers: Anjali Bhatia and Anida Bouakhasith 

Faculty mentor: Braimah Apambire, Ph.D., Director, Center for International Water and Sustainability (CIWAS) 

Additional Mentor: Palistha Shrestha/ Research Scientist, Program Manager, CIWAS 


As communities all over the Southwest continue to face challenges tied to severe drought, water accessibility is becoming an increasing concern. Here at DRI, research in water sustainability extends to communities far beyond Nevada. 

More than 2 billion people lack access to safe drinking water and 3.6 billion people do not have access to safely managed sanitation services. Water contamination and poor hygiene are driving 88% of all diseases in developing countries. To address these needs, the United Nations established the Sustainable Development Goals – a set of 17 goals to improve living conditions of people around the globe. Goal #6 is to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all by 2030. This is an ambitious goal – according to the United Nations, reaching this goal would require quadrupling the current rate of progress.  

Constructing water systems is only the first step in managing water sustainability, as many developing countries continue to experience the breakdown of water infrastructure and inadequate water treatment. Access to safe, clean drinking water is an underlying issue in Ghana, where a 2019 World Health Organization (WHO)/UNICEF report found that 32% of people in rural communities lacked access. Under the mentorship of Braimah Apambire, interns Anjali Bhatia and Anida Bouakhasith analyzed the effectiveness of water systems, water quality, and health impacts surrounding water services. Their work highlights the importance of community-centered research to understand the long-term sustainability of water infrastructure.   

“Water is an essential part of our everyday lives,” said intern Anjali Bhatia. “In developing countries, access to safe drinking water is a real and current issue and something we are striving to fix. The first step is to know what each community needs and continuing to address those specific needs.”  

A map of the districts in Ghana where research was focused.

A map of the districts in Ghana where research was focused: East, North, and Northeast Gonja districts.

Credit: DRI.
Community-Centered Research

During their 16-week internship, Bhatia and Bouakhasith evaluated data collected from the Circuit Rider Program in Northern Ghana. Since 2016, this program has aimed to provide training and materials to Ghanaian communities in order to build their capacity for maintaining functional water systems. By focusing on supporting local technicians with funding and training support, the Circuit Rider Program addresses the main challenges by ensuring that rural water systems are maintained, and water quality is adequately tested. 

The interns evaluated data collected from three Ghanaian regions: East, North, and Northeast Gonja districts. An 18-question survey inquiring about water access, quality, and time spent accessing water was distributed to various households throughout the districts. When asked what their main source of water is, 50% of households in East Gonja reported their main source of water was through hand pumps or surface water. In the Northeast district, 65% of households also reported surface water as their main source of water. Surface water — when left untreated — can contain dangerous levels of arsenic, fluoride, microplastics, and other substances linked to the transmission of diseases 

“Surface water can often contain bacteria, parasites, viruses, and other contaminants,” Bhatia said. “It’s often required that the water is treated before it is safe to drink.”  

When asked how long it takes to collect their water, the three areas varied. While 50% of Northern Gonja households reported they have at-home access, more than 60% of households across the three districts reported it takes them up to half an hour or more to access water.  

Collecting water can involve long and risky journeys. Limited accessibility along with poor sanitation can affect an individual’s well-being and impact other social and economic areas of life. “It puts into perspective how often we take for granted how easily accessible it is to get water. That’s time they could spend doing something else,” said Bhatia. 

All three communities were also asked how they would rate the quality of water from the source they are drinking from. While 95% of households in North Gonja evaluated their water quality as good, it was the opposite for Northeast district communities, where 97% of households described their water quality as poor and even “cloudy, salty, and colored,” with a bad smell.  


Intern Anjali Bhatia presenting her research, shown alongside a graph of where each Ghanaian district gets their water.
Above Left: Intern Anjali Bhatia presents her research. North Gonja primarily sourced water from boreholes with hand pumps, while most of North East Gonja sourced their water from surface water.
Intern Anida Bouakhasith presents her research alongside graphs of community perceptions of their water quality.
Above Right: Intern Anida Bouakhasith presents her research. Most of North Gonja rated their water quality as “good,” whereas most of Northeast Gonja rated their water quality as “poor.”

Where To Go From Here

All the survey data received from rural communities in Ghana help piece together what is needed to ensure effective water systems. Bhatia and Bouakhasith’s data analysis shows the crucial attention needed towards the water systems already put in place and the potential health impacts on households across the region. 

“Getting direct feedback from these communities allows us to see where we need to make changes, what changes need to be made, and with that information we can make those changes,” said Bhatia.  

 “The internship program is an opportunity to develop important professional and technical skills,” said Braimah Apambire, their faculty mentor. “It helps students become even more passionate about helping others and using science to make a positive impact on the world.”  


More Information

To learn more about the DRI Research Immersion Internship, go to https://www.dri.edu/immersion/.

To learn more about DRI’s Center for International Water and Sustainability (CIWAS), go to https://www.dri.edu/ciwas/about-ciwas/.

DRI Opens Doors to Careers in Scientific Research with Student Internship Program

DRI Opens Doors to Careers in Scientific Research with Student Internship Program

DRI Opens Doors to Careers in Scientific Research with Student Internship Program

Jan. 24, 2023

By Elyse DeFranco

Water Treatment
Water Filters

The first in DRI’s Behind the Science Blog coverage of our fall 2022 Research Immersion Internship Series.

This fall, DRI brought eleven students from Nevada’s community and state colleges to the Las Vegas and Reno campuses for a paid, immersive research experience. Over the course of the 16-week program, students worked under the mentorship of DRI faculty members to learn about the process of using scientific research to solve real-world problems. This unique internship program welcomes all students, not only those pursuing majors in science, who are in their first or second year of enrollment at local state and community colleges.

Students for the 2022 fall semester joined from the College of Southern Nevada, Nevada State College, and Truckee Meadows Community College.

“Hands-on experience in science, working directly with experienced mentors, is one of the best ways to help students explore careers in scientific fields, and DRI’s internship program opens up this opportunity to more students across Nevada,” says Meghan Collins, M.S., who leads the internship program. “We’re thrilled to have continued support from MGM Resorts and the Hearst Foundations in order to bring more potential future scientists to DRI.”

The students wrapped up their semester-long internships on Dec. 20 by presenting lightning talks about their research to the DRI community. Their research spanned multiple scientific disciplines, from Nevada’s endangered species, to improving access to drinking water quality in Ghanaian communities, to monitoring Earth’s urban climates from space.

DRI’s Behind the Science Blog will highlight each research team’s accomplishments over a series of five stories.

Applications for fall 2023 internships will open in spring 2023.

In this story, we learn about Erick Bandala’s student interns and their quest to find solutions for communities struggling with a persistent and overlooked problem: the health impacts of high concentrations of fluorides in their drinking water.

Female scientist testing water samples in lab

Left: Intern Shaezeen Vasani tests the efficacy of three different experimental materials in removing fluoride from water. Right: The experimental set-up in Erick Bandala’s lab. 

Credit: DRI.

flouride water samples in flasks in lab

Student Interns Help Erick Bandala Develop a Water Treatment Prototype for Fluoride Removal

Student Researchers: Jennifer Arostegui, Rocio Cortez, Shaezeen Vasani

Faculty mentor: Erick Bandala, Ph.D., Assistant Research Professor of Environmental Science Additional Mentor: Adam Clurman, Student Worker in the Division of Hydrologic Sciences

Fluoride is largely known as a toothpaste additive – the American Dental Association recommends fluoride toothpastes because they help prevent cavities and strengthen tooth enamel. Many communities around the world add fluoride to their drinking water supply for the same reason. But when people consume too much fluoride – more than the 0.7 parts per million recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services – a number of health problems can arise.

“Normally, we hear positive news about fluoride – that it has been proven to rebuild and strengthen tooth enamel,” said intern Rocio Cortez. “However, a high concentration can pose a great danger.”

The Risks of Fluoride Over-Consumption

Fluorides are actually compound elements where the element fluorine combines with other substances, usually metals. They naturally occur in Earth’s rocks and soils, following rain and erosion to make their way into watersheds. Nearly all water contains some level of fluorides, but the geologic history of a region can sometimes lead to far higher levels than average.

Once inside the body, fluorides move through the bloodstream and concentrate in areas with higher calcium, including teeth and bones. Persistent exposure to higher levels can cause dental fluorosis, which discolors teeth and increases the risk of tooth decay. However, some communities are exposed to such high levels of fluorides that skeletal fluorosis can occur, which results from the buildup of fluorides in bones. This leads to joint stiffness and pain, brittle bones, and bone fractures.

“At high levels, fluoride starts to replace calcium in the teeth and bones,” said faculty mentor Erick Bandala. “And we have found places – for example, in Ghana – where the fluoride concentration may be as high as 50 milligrams per liter, which is far higher than the guideline of 1.5 milligrams per liter set by the World Health Organization (WHO).”

Closer to home, Bandala’s research team found wells in central Nevada’s Walker Lake Indian Reservation where the fluoride concentration is around 5 milligrams per liter, nearly three times the WHO guideline.

Excess fluoride can be removed from water with the aid of specialized filters and reverse osmosis, but many communities don’t have access to the proper technology, or the expertise needed to maintain it. Recognizing this, Bandala set out to identify inexpensive, readily available materials that can be used as water filters.

“We are developing materials that can remove contaminants from the water using the concept of circular economy,” Bandala said. “This means that we want to use material that for someone is considered a waste and turn it into something that can be used for water treatment.”

Researching Water Filters for Fluoride Removal

For their internship project, the students examined the potential efficacy of three different materials for removing fluorides from water. The first material, calcium hydroxyapatite (or “bone dust”), is derived from cattle bones. The second, sulfuric biochar, is created from pine wood that had been infected by beetles. The third material, phragmites, is a common invasive plant found in wetland areas.

“For our experiments, the materials were under a process called chemisorption,” said intern Jennifer Arostegui. “This process uses high pressure and high temperatures.”

Chemisorption causes new chemical bonds to form, allowing fluorides to bind to the experimental material and be subsequently removed from the water. The students tested various concentrations of each material over the course of approximately 70 different tests. Their results showed that unheated calcium hydroxyapatite was the most effective at filtering fluoride from water, followed by sulfuric biochar and then phragmites.

Another experiment examined each material to determine whether it was hydrophobic (water repelling) or hydrophilic (water attracting) and compared this to their results for fluoride removal. The students found that this wasn’t a critical factor in determining how effectively the experimental materials scrubbed fluoride from the water.

testing materials in lab

The interns tested how efficiently three different materials removed fluoride from drinking water: calcium hydroxyapatite, sulfuric biochar, and phragmites. 

Credit: DRI.

Embracing the Research Experience

The student researchers benefitted from their hands-on experience in the lab as well as immersion in the DRI community. They shared some of their highlights and surprises, as well as how the internship helped guide their future studies and careers.

“This experience was eye opening,” said intern Shaezeen Vasani, a student at the College of Southern Nevada studying physical sciences. “Every day I learned something new and could not wait to come back in to continue my project. Every time I thought I learned everything, something new would be brought to my attention.”

Vasani said she was surprised by the scientific process, especially when experimental results varied from her expectations. “While running tests, our numbers should have been decreasing but instead it was increasing for some of the materials,” she said, referring to the fluoride concentrations with treatment. “We later learned from our mentor that this could be due to the chemical properties in some of the materials and their interaction with our project’s contaminants.” 

For intern Arostegui, the highlight of the internship experience was the ability “to actually get involved and introduced to a laboratory outside of school. In our group, we learned how to use a spectrophotometer, use reagents/stock solutions, and weighed/prepped our own samples.”

She says she was surprised to be part of a research team that respected her as a collaborator. “The biggest surprise for me was being referred to as a ‘scientist,’ ‘researcher,’ and even ‘engineer’ by my mentor and colleagues,” she said. “I have only seen myself as a student.”

Arostegui is studying environmental management at the College of Southern Nevada and has a specific interest in water resources and says that the internship encouraged her to continue studying hydrology and geology. “This was such a positive experience to be a part of,” she said. “I am forever grateful.”

Prior to the internship, intern Rocio Cortez had focused her undergraduate studies on business administration. Now, she says her career goals have shifted. “I have put in some thought into pursuing a graduate degree that relates to STEM,” she said. “In addition, it has also made me want to volunteer and look for opportunities similar to this internship.”

“When I first started the internship, I really did not know what to expect,” Cortez said. “Through every step of the way, my teammates and I received guidance and support from our mentor… I would like to thank DRI for having this internship and opening its doors to students outside of STEM.”

More Information

To learn more about the DRI Research Immersion Internship, go to https://www.dri.edu/immersion/