What We Breathe: Ivonne Hernandez and the Challenge of Connecting Air Quality to Health

by Bailey Scarlett, Citizen Science Associate

“How do you make someone care about something that you cannot see?”

That is the question hiding behind the work done by Ivonne Hernandez, an educator and environmental specialist for Mecklenburg County Air Quality. While many people understand the overwhelming institutional consequences of climate change globally, Ivonne aims to inform people about the specific actions they can take close to home to avoid the dangers of air pollution.

“It’s just not on your mind,” she says when asked why air pollution is often overlooked on the individual level. The majority of people can’t see or feel how polluted their air is, so it escapes the necessary attention. But as Ivonne cautions: “Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an effect.”

When there are larger quantities of particulates in the air, members of sensitive populations experience negative health effects sooner and more severely than other people. Since not every poor air quality day is marked by a visible haze or plume of wildfire smoke, we often remain unaware of what’s in the air we breathe. That is why monitoring technology and public servants like Ivonne are critical for keeping our communities informed and healthy.

Ivonne began her environmental sciences career at North Carolina State University, where she studied environmental technology and was exposed to numerous mediums and techniques. She completed field work related to the containment of harmful contaminants and gained experience with both air and water quality sampling.

As Ivonne’s career progressed, she eventually made her way to the public sector. Mecklenburg County has one of just three local air quality agencies in North Carolina; the office maintains close contact with other regional and state environmental quality agencies, but has the ability to focus on more local concerns. 

As part of her position Ivonne helps manage Charlotte Air Awareness, an outreach and education program that engages with residents, businesses, and schools in Mecklenburg and adjacent counties. In this role Ivonne works to educate and engage with the public on the dangers of air pollution. She uses multimedia presentations, informational materials, in-person events, and other methods to encourage voluntary action that protects communities from harm. CleanAIRE NC has maintained a close relationship with Mecklenburg County Air Quality for years, and continues to do so because of the complementary nature of the public and nonprofit sectors. 

Making Air Quality More Visible

The new Air Quality Learning Station in uptown Charlotte is part of a larger effort to make air quality more visible to the public.

One recent project Ivonne has been working on is the Air Quality Learning Station in First Ward Park. This pilot project is part of a larger effort to make air quality more visible to the public. It includes a weather station and sensors for particulate matter and ozone, all powered by renewable energy from a solar flower.

The installation aims to provide Charlotte residents, schools, and nonprofits a visual tool for teaching and learning. Ivonne says that partnerships with community groups, like the ones that will use the AQLS, are incredibly valuable. Their communication allows the county and other government bodies to provide the most helpful services to their constituents.

When I asked Ivonne about the number one message she hopes to convey to people through her work, she responded that there are always active steps people can take to both protect themselves and their loved ones on poor air quality days, and to improve their local air quality.

“Small changes make a big impact over time. We may not see immediate effects now, but if we all contribute, it’ll make a difference.”

Learn more about the small changes you can take in your home and community to improve local air quality.

Day-to-Day Actions


One of the best available tools for raising air awareness is the daily Air Quality Index (AQI), which measures how much pollution there is in your local air. You can sign up to receive daily air pollution forecasts for your area at AirNow.gov to help you track your local air quality and take steps to protect your health on poor air quality days.

Sign Up to Receive Your Local Daily Air Quality Forecasts

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