Air Pollution Shown to be Too High Near Some US Schools

Air pollution is dangerously high around schools near some U.S. industrial plants, according to a recent study involving researchers from the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University.

The study, conducted by USA Today reporters, examined air pollution levels near schools around the U.S. over an eight month period. They used a computer model from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that tracks the paths of industrial air pollution around the United States to predict the areas of highest air pollution. The USA Today reporters then partnered with university researchers, including Amir Sapkota of the University of Maryland School of Public Health, to monitor the air quality around schools in areas predicted to have both low and high levels of pollution. The findings were published on the front page of USA Today on December 10, 2008.

The researchers found high levels of toxins, including volatile organic compounds (VOC) and fine particulate matter, in the air near schools in the path of industrial pollution. Most of the affected schools were located on the East Coast and in the Midwest with the largest numbers in states like Illinois, New York, Louisiana and West Virginia . In many cases, toxin levels were much higher than those considered safe by the Environmental Protection Agency. In some cases, the pollution was high enough to cause concern for long term adverse health effects.

"The study brings the air pollution problem to the forefront and shows that we need to pay more attention," said Sapkota. "By making people aware of the problem so that they can take action, this study serves an important purpose."

Sapkota helped measure and identify the VOCs collected from around the designated monitoring sites. VOCs are organic compounds that react to produce ozone (photochemical smog) and fine particulate matter or haze. They are found in emissions from burning oil and gasoline, as well as in cleaners, paints and tobacco smoke. They can cause both short- and long-term health effects.

Another researcher, Patrick Breysse of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, analyzed the metallic compounds collected from the air.

The Smallest Victims

The study focused on schools because children are required by law to be there for long periods of time. This prolongs their exposure to any chemicals that might pollute the surrounding air. Children are most susceptible to these compounds because their bodies are small and in the process of developing.

"Exposure to a certain amount of toxin in a child is not the same as the exposure of an adult to the same amount of toxin," Sapkota said. "Because the child weighs less, he or she is exposed to more toxin per unit of body weight than an adult." Sapkota believes the next step is for the schools that are in these toxic hotspots to do more monitoring, especially of their indoor air quality, to assess the extent of the problem.

"The monitoring in this study was conducted outdoors," said Sapkota. "That doesn't necessarily mean that the toxin concentration is the same indoors, where people spend most of their time."

According to the EPA, the concentration of VOCs indoors can be up to ten times higher than concentrations outside. Air filters cannot remove gaseous VOCs from the air.

Sapkota also emphasized that everyday pollutants do not just come from industry. "VOCs also come from cleaning solvents, furniture, stored gasoline, and car exhaust, all of which can be found in or near our houses" he said.

He says individuals can help reduce VOC exposure by taking certain actions, such as choosing cleaning products with low VOC s, and taking public transportation rather than driving individual cars.

"The primary reason for taking action is that air pollution affects our health," Sapkota said. "We want to prevent people from getting sick and to do that we must remove or minimize exposure to air pollution."

Air Pollution Research at the University of Maryland

Researchers in the University of Maryland are studying air pollution and the health and climate problems associated with it regionally and internationally.

In the School of Public Health , Sapkota is focusing his research on air pollution. He and his colleagues want to study the air pollutants people encounter on a day-to-day basis, and examining the affects on human health. His lab is currently analyzing air pollution and health records to study air pollution that can make asthma worse. He also plans to extend air pollution monitoring to individuals by using personal monitors that follow people throughout their day. Another upcoming project will be a lung cancer study in Nepal .

"One of the goals of the University of Maryland's new School of Public Health is to serve the needs of people in Maryland, the region, the country, and the world," Sapkota said. "As we continue to grow, we will make a big impact on this field and be a significant force behind it."

Researchers in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science led by Professor Russell Dickerson, research air quality in the mid-Atlantic region, across the United States, and internationally in China and India and the Indian Ocean. They work with the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and federal agencies including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NASA and EPA to conduct research relevant to state and national policy formulation and decision making. As part of this teams work with Chinese government on air quality, University of Maryland students helped monitor air pollution before and during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing . Plans are underway to establish a joint research center in China to help further air pollution research there.

Dickerson's research team, composed of chemists and meteorologists, develops analytical instruments for gases and particles (carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and other pollutants, aerosols, etc.) that affect air quality and/or climate. Using these instruments in the laboratory, field, and on ships and aircraft, they measure and interpret the results in terms of photochemistry and atmospheric physics. Regionally, they measure air quality and study air pollution in the Baltimore-Washington area and the role of the atmosphere in the chemistry of the Chesapeake Bay. Their work provides the basis for the Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments daily reports and forecasts of regional air quality.

Dickerson and department of atmospheric and oceanic science colleague Robert Hudson, were honored in 2008 by the University System of Maryland for their more than 10 years work developing and maintaining air quality research, and monitoring and forecasting studies for the State of Maryland. The two professors, along with their students, developed the Regional Atmospheric Measurements, Modeling and Prediction Program used by state agencies to improve air quality in Maryland.

"While the air quality in Maryland has improved substantially over the past few decades, thanks in part to the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Environmental Protection Agency, areas like Baltimore and College Park are often in violation of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards,said Dickerson.

Another University of Maryland leader in regional air pollution research is Professor, John Ondov in the department of chemistry and biochemistry. Ondov studies sources and atmospheric behavior of urban fine particulate matter. He and his team use measurements of air pollutants, wind angle and velocity to identify types of pollution in the air and pinpoint their origins. In 2005 a multi-university team led by Ondov completed a four year Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Supersite Project in Baltimore. In the near future, they hope to develop new, advanced sensor systems and computational methods for detecting radioactive materials released by nuclear devices. If a nuclear event were to occur, such systems could help identify what a device was made of, where the radioactive materials came from and the location of the detonation.

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