Teens Monitor Neighborhood Air Quality in San Joaquin Valley

Photo: Training on use of field monitors. From left to right: Jennifer Mann, Jason Wingett, Adrian Machen, and Jaymin Kwon. The monitors sit on a modified stroller where they reflect the breathing zone of an infant. Training on use of field monitors. From left to right: Jennifer Mann, Jason Wingett, Adrian Machen, and Jaymin Kwon. The monitors sit on a modified stroller where they reflect the breathing zone of an infant.

For two weeks in April, four science-minded teenagers from the Center for Advanced Research and Technology (CART) in Clovis, CA, outfitted their school backpacks with some extraordinary equipment. This included two air pollution monitors (PAS 2000 CE), a global positioning system (GPS) device, and an accelerometer, all as part of a unique community outreach initiative designed to measure their pollution exposures while in transit to and from school.

The project is part of the Children’s Health and Air Pollution Study, or CHAPS. A collaboration of UC Berkeley, Stanford, and Fresno State, CHAPS investigates the health effects of air pollution on children living in the San Joaquin Valley. According to the American Lung Association, this region of Fresno County has some of the worst air quality in the United States.

“The CHAPS project is innovative in that we estimate someone’s daily exposures based on residence and workplace,” says Jennifer Mann, a co-investigator with CHAPS and an epidemiologist with the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. “However, we have no information on transit exposures for PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), and that’s what this project contributes.”

“PAHs are compounds that are generated by combustion of carbon-based materials, including diesel, gasoline, tobacco, and wood. When inhaled, PAHs are capable of injuring cells and disrupting their normal functioning,” CHAPS researchers report. The Community Outreach and Translation Core of the CHAPS study works with local residents to understand air quality hazards and how they affect children’s health as they grow. Jenny Saklar, director of Outreach and Communications, reached out to CART when she learned of their shared interest in helping students collaborate on youth education projects with partners from the local community.

Photo: CART Students Nancy Gonzales and Amber Sargent record PAH levels as measured by the PAS 2000 CE monitor. CART Students Nancy Gonzales and Amber Sargent record PAH levels as measured by the PAS 2000 CE monitor.

All students in CART’s environmental science program are placed in a project where they gain hands-on field experience. Exclusively juniors and seniors, they spend half a day at their home school and half a day at CART. The four students who participated in the CHAPS air monitoring project came from different neighborhoods and socio-economic backgrounds, affording a diverse set of transit data for the project.

Monday through Friday, the teens turned on the monitoring equipment when they left the house to measure the temporal and spatial variability of their PAH exposure while in transit. The real-time monitors took samples in 10 second intervals while the teens traveled to their home school in the morning, then on their mid-day bus ride to CART, and later back to their home school, and finally, on their trip back home.

Very few of these PAS 2000 CE monitors exist worldwide, and they are expensive. “I have to admit I was really worried,” said Mann. Fortunately, the teens cared for the equipment without incident, turning the monitors on and off throughout the day to save battery life.

Later, the CHAPS team helped the students download and analyze their monitoring data. Then, they compared one another’s PAH concentrations during the same time periods and hypothesized why concentrations varied by route taken and mode of transportation. “The excitement of them being able to start understanding concepts about air pollution and health and how much it can vary from place to place,” made an impression on Mann. When students presented their preliminary results to CART board members in February and to CART students and teachers in May, 2015, it generated a great deal of enthusiasm. “All in all, this was a win-win project,” added Saklar.

The CHAPS study receives funding from the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Principal Investigators include COEH faculty Katharine Hammond, professor of Environmental Health Sciences, UC Berkeley School of Public Health, and John Balmes, director of COEH. Gary Shaw, professor of Pediatrics in the School of Medicine at Stanford, is also a Principal Investigator. Jaymin Kwon, professor in the Department of Public Health at Fresno State, was a partner in CART’s community outreach project.

For more information on CHAPS, visit: http://chaps.berkeley.edu.

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