It’s Art And It’s Air Pollution: Particle Falls Returns To Charlotte

Feb 28, 2020

An art installation that visualizes pollution in the air we breathe returns to Charlotte this weekend for a month-long residency.

It’s called Particle Falls, and it looks like a blue waterfall that’s been projected on the side of UNC Charlotte’s Center City building on East 9th Street. A sensor detects pollution in the air, and then a computer program translates that data into dots projected onto the building’s surface. Those dots represent otherwise unseen air pollution.

This pollution has a name. It’s called PM2.5: fine particulate matter that’s 1/30th the width of a single human hair. The particles are so small, they sometimes stick in our lungs because we can’t cough them out. The most common sources are power plants and car exhausts. So when a truck goes by or cars back up during rush hour near Particle Falls, the dots on the waterfall multiply and then turn bright orange.

Professor and environmental artist Andrea Polli created Particle Falls. She says people are taken aback by the artwork. 

"I think the other thing that really surprises people, and even people who are experts in air quality, is just how much you can see, or just how much there is," Polli said. "I mean, we calibrate it. But when people see a change in the air quality, they almost hold their breath, because it's so dramatic."

Charlotte’s air quality has improved in recent decades. A 2019 report by the American Lung Association ranked Charlotte among the cleanest cities in the country for PM2.5 pollution. But that report showed Charlotte continues to have problems with ozone, as the 41st-worst city for ozone pollution in the U.S. Charlotte’s ozone levels have dropped significantly in the past 20 years, but the city continues to skirt under EPA limits for ozone pollution.

Particle Falls was last in Charlotte in 2016. Polli has since updated the installation. She’s replaced the large air quality monitor that cost just over $5,000 with a handheld consumer model that costs under $300.

Volunteers from Clean Air Carolina will be stationed at the installation on weekends and some weeknights to explain it to viewers.

Polli and a representative of UNC Charlotte, which is co-sponsoring the installation, will speak at a public opening of the installation at 8:30 p.m. on Friday.

Particle Falls runs through March 28, and people can catch the visualization every night starting at sunset.