The Great Lakes region is home to major power producers. But along with the electricity they make comes some amount of air pollution. When coal-fired power plants in Illinois and Ohio emit sulfur dioxides, prevailing winds blow them to the Northeast, where they can fall as acid rain. Several northeast states are suing those power plants to clean up their emissions. Earlier this summer, a professor at Clarkson University in northern New York coordinated a unique study to learn more about the life cycle of air pollution, from where it’s produced to where it lands. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s David Sommerstein has the story:
The Great Lakes region is home to major power producers. But along with the electricity they make comes some amount of air pollution. When coal-fired power plants in Illinois and Ohio emit sulfur dioxides, prevailing winds blow them to the Northeast, where they can fall as acid rain. Several northeast states are suing those power plants to clean up their emissions.
Earlier this summer, a professor at Clarkson University in northern New York coordinated a unique study to learn more about the life cycle of air pollution, from where it’s produced to where it lands. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s David Sommerstein has the story.
Chemical engineering professor Phil Hopke will take any opportunity to get out of his office and over to his field lab. It consists of a concrete slab amongst the weeds in a corner of the local airport. Installed on the concrete are monitors he uses to find out exactly what’s in the air we breathe.
(sound of opening lock)
Hopke unlocks a gate in a chainlink fence. You can already hear a strange hum in the distance. It gets louder as Hopke strides up to one of three white machines the size of dishwashers.
“Come out and change the filters once a day. This one’s for organic constituents in the air.”
He pulls out what looks like an air filter for your furnace. These machines suck in air. They leave a unique footprint of chemicals on the filter that represents what was in the air in this place on this day — chemicals like sulfur dioxide and mercury. Hopke will send these filters to specialty labs around the world to be analyzed.
There are hundreds of stations like this in North America. Groups of researchers study daily air quality for every region of the country. They examine how things like traffic and smokestacks might affect the air we breathe.
But Hopke says they mostly focus on their own areas. They don’t often coordinate studies to see how the chemicals they find move from region to region.
“It struck me a couple of years ago, particularly in the Northeast, that we have these groups talking to one another.”
Working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Hopke convinced 26 sites in the East, from Texas to Toronto, to measure the same stuff on the same days. They chose the whole month of July.
It’s perhaps the largest simultaneous air sampling effort ever conducted in this country. When the data’s complete, the study will track the lifespan of pollution, from when it leaves a smokestack or a car’s tailpipe to when it is taken up by a tree or your lungs.
But scientists can’t just follow one molecule of pollution from a car in St. Louis to a lake in Michigan. They have to make models of how the chemicals move, like how meteorologists make weather maps to trace storm systems. As if that’s not complicated enough, says Hopke, naturally occurring chemicals make the job even tougher.
“You have to keep in mind that the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia are blue because of natural photochemical smog, particles being formed because of the pine materials that come off. Those materials that you smell are chemically reactive and will undergo the same type of smog reactions as human emitted materials.”
So researchers use techniques to separate out the “man-made” pollutants from the “natural” pollutants. Next they look for high concentrations of, say, sulfur dioxide in Chicago on July 15th. Then they follow those high levels east with prevailing winds. They look for high sulfur dioxide levels in Ohio or New York a few days later. After doing this many times in July for many types of chemicals, the researchers hope patterns will begin to emerge.
Hopke sits on a scientific advisory committee that helps the EPA develop pollution standards. He says this coordinated study will bring stronger science to the EPA’s sometimes controversial decisions.
“Suppose I require all power plants to reduce their sulfur dioxide emissions by twenty percent. What does that do for me for particle concentrations in New York City? What will that do? Will that get us where we want in terms of clean air?”
With a study this large in scope, the answers to those questions won’t come quickly. The massive amount of data gathered in the study will take a few years to interpret.
In the meantime, Hopke and the EPA are planning another cooperative sampling effort for wintertime, when temperatures and people’s habits are different from summer.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m David Sommerstein.