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University of Utah: Renewed Energy in Air Quality Awareness & Reseach

 From the University of Utah's Office of Sustainability:

After praising Utah for its quality skiing and majestic beauty, a February New York Times article got to the point: The Wasatch Front’s reputation for bad air is tarnishing its image as “an outdoor lover’s utopia.”

The University of Utah and the greater Salt Lake Valley are situated in a unique geographic setting that affects their air quality. The surrounding mountains and lake work together to hold air pollution in place during times of colder temperatures, sometimes for days or even weeks at a time. The phenomenon is referred to as an “inversion” or cold air pool.

This winter’s consistent inversion and the associated health problems – including residents’ frequent coughing fits - have ignited a renewed interest in air quality awareness and research at the University of Utah. Researchers from disciplines as varied as pulmonary medicine, chemical engineering, and atmospheric sciences are working together to understand and improve Utah’s air.

Robert Paine III, chief of the Division of Pulmonary Medicine, and Kerry Kelly, research associate for the Institute for Clean and Secure Energy, founded the Program for Air Quality, Health, and Society at the U in late 2012 with the support of Dr. Vivian Lee, senior vice president for Health Sciences. The program’s goal is to foster collaboration across disciplines and form a venue for different researchers to get involved by promoting cooperation between main campus and upper campus where health sciences are located. Both Paine and Kelly have previously served on the Utah Air Quality Board.

In the short term, Kelly says the program will seek to facilitate collaborations and locate more funding. In the long term, the program aims to help the state of Utah be recognized for its expertise in air quality research. “We want to take advantage of the unique Utah situation to better understand the health effects of air quality and solutions,” she says.

There are multiple ways students, staff, faculty, and other community members can become involved. The state of Utah is currently developing a rigorous plan to help it meet national air quality standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency. The state is actively seeking suggestions for ways to reduce emissions, and Kelly says this is a great opportunity for anyone that might want to be involved and have a voice in local air quality issues. “Help to encourage more education,” she says. “Help policymakers understand the economic issues involved.”

Geoff Silcox, professor of Chemical Engineering, hopes more people will become involved with the program and consider air quality issues. Silcox teaches a class called Air Pollution Control Engineering, which focuses on ways in which engineers can help improve air quality. He says Utahns “don’t think about the big picture. We’re just not used to thinking about it.”

Silcox encourages students to make a difference by getting involved in research projects. Silcox and Kelly were both part of a project in winter of 2011 through the Division of Air Quality and the Bennion Center. They placed PM2.5 (particulate matter) samplers across the valley and took samples during inversions. The next year, students from the U helped to analyze the composition of the samples. Fifteen of the compounds they found within the PM2.5 samples exceeded EPA standards and therefore considered harmful to human health. The students also discovered that people have to be at about 6,500 feet of elevation to escape most of the pollution.

This year, Silcox will continue to work with the Division of Air Quality by analyzing data on hazardous air pollutants. He will also continue to work with and provide suggestions to the Program for Air Quality, Health, and Society.

David Whiteman, a professor in Atmospheric Studies, also works to get students involved in research because he wants Utah to continue to be an appealing place to live. His work focuses on the meteorological aspects of inversions, or cold air pools, in the Salt Lake Valley. Whiteman and several graduate and post-doctoral students looked at how cold air pools form and how they dissipate. They also studied the levels of PM2.5 during inversions. They found that, on average, nine micrograms per cubic meter of PM2.5 are added per day during multiple-day inversion events. The project is funded by the National Science Foundation.

Whiteman says he wants to use what he learns about inversions to develop an international model. These cold air pools form in similar geographic locations all over the world. Whiteman is currently working with several researchers from other countries.

The researchers are optimistic that air quality in Utah will improve over the coming years because of all the efforts from people with a variety of backgrounds. “This is a great place to live,” says Whiteman, “but the one thing that is bad are these winter air pollution episodes.”

The researchers encourage people to make intelligent personal choices, especially regarding transportation, which according to the Department of Environmental Quality is responsible for more than 50% of Utah's PM2.5 pollution. One great way to do so is to join the annual Utah Clear the Air Challenge. Dozens of university and community teams and individuals compete every year to see who can "drive down" the most miles and emissions. The 2013 Challenge runs from July 1-31. To participate this year or learn more, log on at University of Utah Students can also get involved through research or by joining student groups, such as the University Student Clean Air Network (USCAN).

“We can all make better personal lifestyle choices,” says Kelly.