AIR QUALITY RESEARCH

Originally posted on @theU on February 11, 2019.

By Kate Whitbeck, University of Utah Sustainability Office

It should come as no surprise that the University of Utah is home to some of the world’s premier experts on air quality. As we settle deeper into the winter inversion season, researchers at the U renew their efforts to better understand who the big emitters are, who is being affected and how we can clear our air. It’s not just the folks in the atmospheric sciences who are studying air quality. We have professors in art, philosophy, geography, sociology and economics who are working to better understand the causes and identify comprehensive solutions.

Sara Grineski

Sara Grineski, professor of sociology and environmental studies, focuses on environmental health disparities, children’s health and environmental justice. She explores how social inequalities shape our exposure to air pollution as well as the health effects caused by air pollution.

The results of her research have led her to believe that “not everyone has the same opportunities to protect themselves in terms of where they live or work. It doesn’t matter if it is a red air quality day—landscapers (for example) have to be outside working. We can try our best to protect our family in our little bubble but the solution to the problem is we need to reduce emissions and make the air cleaner for everyone,” Grineski said. “We need to see solutions at a policy level. Air quality needs community solutions, state-level action and federal policy.”

 

Daniel Mendoza

Daniel Mendoza has reached similar conclusions. As a research assistant professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences, his work focuses on the impact of poor air quality on health, both for individuals and for the population as a whole. “While historically, studies have looked at very elevated pollutant levels, such as those found during inversions,” he said. “Our current research shows that even small increases in PM 2.5 or ozone are responsible for outcomes ranging from increased absences in schools to a greater number of hospitalizations due to pulmonary conditions.”

One of the simplest solutions lies with changing behaviors around transit.  “Within the metropolitan planning context, we have found that the use of transit as an alternative to single-passenger vehicle use can mitigate emissions in a meaningful way,” Mendoza said.

Frequently, people place the blame on industry, without acknowledging that “refineries are there because we demand the gasoline to drive our cars and diesel for our goods to be delivered. Personal accountability is a necessary component of solving this problem,” Mendoza said. The solution can be as simple as “not idling our cars, taking transit as often as possible and being more conservative with the temperature in our homes.”

Grineski and Mendoza are only two of the many researchers engaged in examining air quality at the U. The university’s Global Change and Sustainability Center hosts an inventory of U researchers, publications, presentations, media references and awards related to air quality. As the smog settles in our valley, and we know our researchers are working hard to do their part, we need to make conscious choices to reduce our own emissions and remind our elected officials of the importance of state and federal policy to make our air cleaner for everyone.

Throughout February, take action on air quality by tracking your commute behaviors with the Clear the Air Challenge, a statewide competition that aims to reduce emissions from vehicles by promoting alternative transit options. Join the U team at travelwisetracker.com/s/university-of-utah.

Invert the Inversion

By Ayrel Clark-Proffitt, campus engagement, Sustainability Office

It is hard to ignore Salt Lake Valley’s poor air quality this winter unless you’ve figured out how to shut your eyes and mouth and plug your nose (or you haven’t gone outside at all). Views of our mountains, the Wasatch and Oquirrh ranges, are at times completely obscured by the smog surrounding us. That tickle in the throat could be a virus or it could be a reaction to inhaling the pollution hovering over the city. Neither are good options.

But wait, there is good news. We can reduce the particulate matter choking our healthy air by making different choices—particularly when getting from point A to point B. For the month of February, join the university’s Clear the Air Challenge team and help invert the inversion. Improve air quality (and be eligible from some cool opportunity drawing prizes from GREENbikeCotopaxi the Campus Bike Shop and more).

Now in its 10th year of friendly competition, Utah’s Clear the Air Challenge encourages people to take fewer trips, and the U is the reigning champion. Did you know that mobile sources, including our cars, are responsible for nearly half of the fine particulate matter on our wintertime poor air quality days? By using TravelWise strategies—including walking, biking, riding transit, carpooling and more—we can cut transportation-related emissions. Through collective action, by changing the way we travel we can make a big difference.

In 2018, the challenge saved an estimated 386 tons of CO2 or the equivalent of the emissions from nearly 45 million smartphones charged. By logging your alternative transportation trips on the online dashboard or through the brand new mobile app, you can track your contribution to emissions saved, plus see your dollars saved and calories burned in comparison to driving alone.

Automate your commute trips

For the first time in its history, the Clear the Air Challenge now connects with two different apps. The first app, Commute Tracker by RideAmigos is specifically designed to work with the challenge to log a user’s commute data. Find a step-by-step guide to connecting the app with your Clear the Air Challenge account on the university’s sustainability website.

The second app is Strava, a free fitness app particularly popular with cyclists and runners. Strava connects with any GPS-enabled device and tracks and analyzes personal health information. Ginger Cannon, active transportation manager for the U, said, “I use Strava because I can track every activity I do, including my active commute to work. Strava can also help connect you to a virtual community of like-minded people–for example, there is a commuter group you can join to meet others who bike or walk to the university.”

Who can participate?

The Clear the Air Challenge is for everyone. Sincerely. Even friends and family are welcome to join the University of Utah team. There are so many different ways to engage in reducing emissions from transportation. Obvious options include riding transit and shuttles, bicycling, and walking—even if it is just walking to a nearby meeting instead of driving.  Even those who need to drive have options, including skipping trips by bringing lunch from home and trip chaining by doing multiple errands in a row to avoid vehicle cold starts.

Together we can clear the air. Join the team and let’s get started.

The university’s Clear the Air Challenge participation is managed by the Sustainability Office, with support from ASUU, Commuter Services, University of Utah Health, Real Estate Administration and University Marketing & Communications. The Clear the Air Challenge is a partnership between TravelWise, UCAIR and the Salt Lake Chamber.

Clear The Air

By Vince Horiuchi, public relations associate, College of Engineering

Air conditioning and heating systems are not only great for keeping a home cool or warm, but they also help clean the air of harmful pollutants.

While home thermostats control HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) systems based on temperature, engineers from the University of Utah have studied the effects of controlling them based on a home’s indoor air quality. They have discovered that programming your air conditioner and furnace to turn on and off based on the indoor air quality as well as the temperature doesn’t waste a lot of additional energy but keeps the air much cleaner.

Their findings, published in a paper titled Smart Home Air Filtering System: A Randomized Controlled Trial for Performance Evaluation, were presented on Sept. 26 at this year’s “IEEE/ACM Conference on Connected Health: Applications, Systems and Engineering Technologies” in Washington D.C. The lead authors of the paper are University of Utah electrical and computer engineering professor Neal Patwari and U electrical and computer engineering doctoral graduate, Kyeong T. Min.

PHOTO CREDIT: University of Utah Professor Neal Patwari
This graph shows that when a home heating and air conditioning system turns on and off based on temperature alone (normal), the air quality in the home can result in the dirtiest air based on 2.5 particulate matter. Meanwhile leaving the heating and air conditioning on all the time (On) results in the cleanest air at the expense of using the most energy. The SmartAir plot shows that a system that turns on and off based on both temperature and air quality can result in a home with much cleaner air but without a much higher cost in energy.

The researchers, led by Patwari, purchased a series of off-the-shelf portable air pollution sensors and connected them wirelessly to Raspberry Pis, small and inexpensive computers for hobbyists. With specialized software developed by the engineers, the computers were programmed to automatically turn on the air conditioning system whenever the particulate matter in the air reached a certain point and turn off the system when the particulate matter dipped below a certain measurement.

For the study, 12 sensors were deployed in four homes in 2017. In each house, two of the sensors were inside rooms, and one was placed outside under a covered porch. Starting at midnight each night, each home would randomly operate the sensors under one of three conditions: “Normal,” in which the HVAC systems turned on and off normally based on temperature only; “Always On,” in which the air system operated continuously all day, and; “SmartAir,” in which the system turned on and off the HVAC fan based on the pollution measurement in the house as well as the thermostat’s temperature setting.

Based on five months of data, the study revealed that operating with the “SmartAir” setting in which it turned on and off based on temperature and air quality cleaned the air almost as well as if the HVAC fan was operating all day, but it used 58 percent less energy. Meanwhile, when the heating and cooling system operates normally without regards to the air quality, the air was 31 percent dirtier than with the “SmartAir” setting.

“For someone with asthma, an exacerbation can be triggered by poor air in the home, particularly for children,” Patwari says. “This kind of monitoring system could allow them to live more comfortably and with fewer asthma symptoms and fewer trips to the emergency room.”

Because of ordinary activities in the home such as cooking, vacuuming and running the clothes dryer, air quality inside a home can at certain times of the day be much worse than outside. Constant exposure to indoor air pollutants can lead to short-term health effects such as irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, as well as headaches, dizziness, and fatigue, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Long-term exposure could also lead to respiratory diseases, heart disease and cancer and could be fatal for some. Yet there are no known home or commercial HVAC systems that are controlled by air quality sensors.

Patwari’s study involves engineering in collaboration with other University of Utah scientists, including biomedical informatics and clinical asthma researchers. It was funded as part a larger National Institutes of Health program known as Pediatric Research using Integrated Sensor Monitoring Systems (PRISMS), launched in 2015 to develop sensor-based health monitoring systems for measuring environmental, physiological and behavioral factors in pediatric studies of asthma and other chronic diseases.

Research reported in this publication was funded by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number U54EB021973. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

The Intersection of Greenhouse Gases and Air Quality

By: Nicholas Apodaca, Graduate Assistant, Sustainability Office.

As Utah residents know well, air quality can have a serious effect on our daily lives. Wildfires, inversions, dust, and pollution colliding with the complex geography of the Salt Lake region all contribute to the thick haze that can settle over the valley. However, the exact conditions and effects of these issues are not yet completely understood.

John Lin, professor of atmospheric sciences here at the University of Utah, will shine some light on these regional air quality problems in his lecture on Tuesday, September 11 in 210 ASB as part of the Global Change & Sustainability Center’s annual seminar series. Lin will lay out some of the complex conditions that affect air quality, and show just how interconnected they are to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change across the West.

He’ll explain how air quality can be indicative of many diverse conditions converging.

Of major concern in Lin’s research on Salt Lake City is dust blown off the Great Salt Lake. As the climate warms and water levels lower more frequently, dust is increasingly exposed to the air and carried into the atmosphere. Salt Lake City’s proximity to the lake leaves it particularly susceptible to the ill effects. This lake dust also effects snow, as it settles on the snowpack and causes it to melt faster.

Wildfires also play a big part in introducing particles to the atmosphere. Smoke from across the West can move hundreds of miles in the atmosphere to Utah. As climate change makes fires more frequent and intense, the relationship between global processes and regional air quality becomes more evident.

This relationship is visible in our daily lives.

“When we drive, the stuff that comes out of our tailpipes includes greenhouse gases but also NOx [Nitrogen Oxide] and PM2.5 which cause air quality problems,.” Lin said.

Often the source of local pollution is the source of emissions that drive climate change. Each contributes to a feedback loop that exacerbates their combined effect.

Lin’s research at the U has begun to uncover and understand the sources of these problems. Through two research groups, LAIR and U-ATAQ, Lin has used extensive data from a complex network of air quality monitoring systems throughout the region. The TRAX Air Quality monitoring system installed four years ago has been a major player in this network. The system has allowed Lin and his colleagues to closely monitor the valley’s air in its most densely-populated areas. Working together with city government, this research is directly informing new air quality initiatives in Salt Lake City. Collaborative work with the University of Utah Medical School is also applying this data to public health research.

The possibilities emerging from an understanding of how air quality and climate change intersect may have positive consequences outside of Utah.

“There’s a fair bit of interest from cities around the West who want to reduce emissions,” said Lin. “The cities are at the forefront, and hopefully the scientists can help in some way. What we hope to do is use our research to help assess if, with new measures in place, the reduction in emissions are actually happening.”

Come to Lin’s seminar, ” “The greenhouse gas-air quality nexus: experiences from the Western U.S.” at 4 p.m. in 210 ASB on Tuesday, September 11 to learn more about this cutting-edge research of the intersection of air quality and climate change, and how it affects us here in Salt Lake City and the West.  

USING NATURE AS OUR GUIDE: FIVE PLANTS THAT IMPROVE INDOOR AIR QUALITY

Katie Stevens, Sustainable Utah Blog Writing Intern.

Living in Salt Lake City, we are no strangers to air pollution and its harmful effects.  Breathing in toxic air can cause a range of health concerns including increased asthmatic symptoms, bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and more.

It is no surprise that we often retreat into our homes to catch a breath of fresh air; however, sometimes our indoor air quality could be improved. Common indoor air pollutants include benzene, formaldehyde, trichloroethylene, xylene, and ammonia. There are certain plants that can combat these indoor air pollutants, according to a study done by NASA.

Here are five plants that can improve your indoor air quality: 

  1. FLORIST’S CHRYSANTHEMUM (Chrysanthemum morifolium)
  • Helps to rid the air of: Trichloroethylene, formaldehyde, benzene, xylene, and ammonia.
  • Care: Keep the plant in cooler temperatures and keep the soil moist at all times. Requires bright light.
  • Toxic? Chrysanthemum leaves are toxic so keep this in a safe spot away from any furry friends and youngsters.
  1. PEACE LILY (Spathiphyllum ‘Mauna Loa’)
  • Helps rid the air of: Trichloroethylene, formaldehyde, benzene, xylene, and ammonia.
  • Care: Average room temperature is good for this plant. Keep the soil evenly moist and be sure to have a pot with a drainage hole. Bright light is recommended, but not direct sunlight.
  • Toxic? Yes
  1. ENGLISH IVY (Hedera helix)
  • Helps rid the air of: Trichloroethylene, formaldehyde, xylene, and benzene.
  • Care: Keep under bright light, preferably fluorescent. Soil should be kept moist spring through fall and a bit drier in winter. Ivy likes cool to average room temperatures.
  • Toxic? English Ivy leaves are toxic if eaten and can irritate the skin; it is always a good idea to wear gloves while handling this plant.
  1. BARBERTON DAISY (Gerbera jamesonii)
  • Helps rid the air of: Trichloroethylene, formaldehyde, and xylene.
  • Care: This plant requires bright light to full sun and thorough watering. Prefers cool to average temperatures.
  • Toxic? Non-toxic.
  1. BROADLEAF LADY PALM (Rhapis excelsa)
  • Helps rid the air of: Formaldehyde, xylene, and ammonia.
  • Care: Keep this plant in bright, but indirect light. Soil should be kept evenly moist in the spring and summer and should be dried out between watering in the winter.
  • Toxic? Non-toxic.

I invite you to create your indoor air sanctuary with these plants and test out your green thumb this winter!

 

Cover Photo Via Pixabay CC0

 

WINTER BIKING

Commuters who ride their bikes to work may be happier than their compatriots who drive solo. While cycling may not be feasible for all individuals, those who can partake may find relief from avoiding traffic congestion and breathing in the great outdoors. Biking is typically considered a fair-weather activity, but with a few additional layers and inexpensive bike additions, cyclists can continue to enjoy their commutes even as the temperatures fall. Don’t forget to log your bike trips in the Clean Air for U Challenge!