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Residents in Seven Counties Volunteer in Air Monitoring Program

07/21/11 by Kathy Chaffin 

Volunteers with the Center for the Environment’s summer air monitoring program in partnership with Davidson College have embraced the collaborative effort.
“I am very interested in connections and collaborations that have the community involved,” says Dr. Karen Bernd, volunteer for Iredell County and an associate professor of biology at Davidson. “This time, I’m not the scientist. I’m the volunteer, so that’s a nice ‘give back’ perspective for me.”
Bernd, along with the six volunteers in Rowan, Cabarrus, Davidson, Gaston and Mecklenburg counties in North Carolina and York County in South Carolina, started putting out collectors with tubes and filters every Tuesday beginning May 31 to measure ozone and nitrogen oxide (NOx) levels in the air.
“I go down to where the collector is once a week and take out the old one and put the new one in,” she says. “It’s as easy as going and getting my mail.”
Only two of the counties — Rowan and Mecklenburg — are currently monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency for air quality. Rowan was named the 17th worst county in the nation (of those monitored) for ozone levels in the 2011 State of the Air Report by the American Lung Association while Mecklenburg tied with two other counties for the 21st ranking.
Dr. Cindy Hauser, associate professor of chemistry at Davidson, will analyze the data for cross comparison. She and two undergraduate research students are coordinating the program with the Center’s Campaign for Clean Air staff.
Campaign Intern June McDowell trained the volunteers and picks up six of the collectors on a weekly basis. (Bernd delivers her own to Hauser at Davidson when she goes to work.) The Center purchased the equipment for the program with Campaign for Clean Air funds.
Hauser says the monitors are being placed in unidentified residential areas in the seven counties so residents can get an idea of what the air is like “literally” in their own back yards.
Becca Kirlin, environmental education program specialist at the Schiele Museum of Natural History & Planetarium in Gastonia, is the volunteer for Gaston County. “I’m glad to be helping out with it,” she says. “I think it’s neat in terms of regular citizens participating in a larger study.”
Kirlin says she is eager to compare the results after the program concludes on the last Tuesday in July and thinks other residents of Gaston County will be, too. “If you think about just how much people want to know what’s going on with the weather,” she says. “They’re constantly checking on which way the storm is coming. It’s one of those things; if people have access to the information, they’ll probably tap into it.”
Working with children at the museum, Kirlin says she especially wants to know if high ozone warnings would put any of them with respiratory problems at risk.
Dawn Grant, a member of the Cabarrus Sustainability Council, which recently enacted its own clean air initiative, is the volunteer for that county. “I’ve always been concerned about the quality of our air since we’re breathing it,” she says. That concern intensified when she found out a young family member has asthma.
Grant says she thinks Cabarrus residents will be surprised by the results of the summer air monitoring program. Though the county is not monitored, it is part of the Charlotte-Gastonia-Salisbury metropolitan region ranked the 10th worst in the nation for ground-level ozone levels.
Being located in the foothills may also be a factor, she says. “The air quality is kind of stagnant and just lays there instead of moving and drifting off,” she says. “It stays on top of us longer.”
Grant says the collectors are easy to put out. They arrive in coolers and have to be taken out and left inside at room temperature for 30 minutes before being placed outside.
Andrew Plummer, who received a degree in environmental science from Catawba College in 2010, is the volunteer for Davidson County. “I really can’t wait to see what the data shows at the end just to see how the different counties compare,” he says, “and to see if there are any correlations between weather patterns and air quality.”
Plummer, whose dream job would be working with air quality monitoring for the EPA, says he is pleased to see not only the Center collaborating with Davidson College, but citizens of all seven counties working together on such an important project. “If we could get more folks on board, we could get more data and be able to see how things really are,” he says.
Bernd says residents of counties not currently monitored may think their air quality isn’t a problem because they don’t know what it is. “So this project helps to fill in those pieces of data to understand what’s out there,” she says. “Hopefully, we can show that the air quality is at least fine and possibly great, but if it doesn’t, we also need to know that so we can make informed decisions rather than gut decisions or ‘stick your head in the sand’ decisions that aren’t based on data.”
As a cell biologist, Bernd’s research has to do with the effect of ozone on lung cells. “So I’ve got other connections to this project,” she says.
Other volunteers for the summer air monitoring program are Carolyn Glasgow of Rowan County, DeeDee Petronis of Mecklenburg and Steve Pin of York County, S.C. Results of the program will be announced to increase awareness of air quality in all seven counties.
***
The Center for the Environment at Catawba College was founded in 1996 to provide education and outreach centered on prevalent environmental challenges and to foster community-oriented sustainable solutions that can serve as a model for programs throughout the country. For more information, visit www.centerfortheenvironment.org or www.campaignforcleanair.org.

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