College, community investigate impact of air pollution
by Ariel Klatskin ’13
May 4, 2010
Greg Howard, assistant professor of environmental studies, and Emily Lawrence ’10 display Lawrence’s research project poster on air pollution.
Anyone walking through Dickinson’s campus can attest to the number of trucks that pass through Carlisle on a daily basis. The trucking industry, regional coal emissions, topography and weather make the area prone to high concentrations of fine particulate matter—air pollution.
Diesel trucks are a major source of particulate matter in the air. These tiny bits of soot, dust and dirt can cause asthma and other respiratory problems, and the particles can lodge in an individual’s lungs for a long time. Their small size also makes it difficult for the public to know which days have the highest concentration of particulate matter. That’s why Greg Howard, assistant professor of environmental studies, and Emily Lawrence ’10, an environmental-science major and track and field athlete from Boulder, Colo., have begun to study the impact on the lung health of asthmatic elementary-school students in the Carlisle area and runners at Dickinson.
The Carlisle community already is monitoring the air through the Clean Air Partnership—comprised of the Carlisle Regional Medical Center, The Sentinel and the Clean Air Board of Central Pennsylvania (CAB). The newspaper has a monitor on top of its building to track particulate-matter concentrations throughout the day; results can be found hourly on its Web site.
Howard recently joined the board of directors at CAB, which raises public awareness about air-quality issues, monitors air pollution and promotes policies that protect the air. The data collected by The Sentinel and CAB are key to the study, he said.
The project, “Air Pollution and Health in Carlisle,” combines information collected from local elementary schools and from Lawrence’s fellow cross country runners with the goal of determining short- and long-term effects of particulate matter on public health.
Information on asthmatic elementary-school students was provided by Mary Franco, head nurse of the Carlisle Area School District. The data show how many children from each school used their inhalers each day. Howard and Lawrence hope to see a correlation between particulate-matter concentrations and the number of students who use inhalers on a given day. Initial test results showed that there was a greater short-term effect on students, but the most recent data indicates no impact.
“However, particulate pollution is obviously detrimental to lung health, so further study in Carlisle is warranted,” Lawrence said.
Lawrence enlisted 32 fellow runners, members of Dickinson’s cross country and track and field teams, to participate in the study. After practice on selected days, runners breathe into a peak-flow meter and record their results. A peak-flow meter is commonly used by asthma sufferers and measures peak expiratory flow—the fastest rate at which a person can exhale in liters per minute. Runners also report their exertion levels, lung-function levels and any respiratory symptoms they have before or after running.
Preliminary results were mixed. Some runners appeared to be negatively affected by higher concentrations of particulate matter, while others suffered no ill effects.
“When the runners were examined as a group, particulate matter had no impact on peak-flow values,” said Lawrence, who also is a member of the cross country team. “According to our study, lung function in Dickinson’s collegiate runners was not impacted by Carlisle’s particulate matter.”
Howard and Lawrence are looking for new ways to analyze the data to reach more conclusive results. Though the data are not conclusive for the long term, it’s important that the community is informed about the high levels of particulate matter in the air, Howard said.
Sometimes “a small study might find no result, despite the fact that we know that particulate matter is terrible for health,” he said.
Some relief is on the way. Carlisle has received funding from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation for a $2.8 million road diet that will reduce the number of lanes along High and Hanover streets—including the section of West High Street through the Dickinson campus—from four lanes to two.