The same data that helped local residents make informed choices could be important to helping regional experts map out trends in fine particulate emissions and health issues related to air quality.
For over nine years, the Clean Air Partnership operated a BAM-1020 air quality monitor mounted on the rooftop of The Sentinel Building at 457 E. North St. in Carlisle.
As The Sentinel prepares to move to its new location at 327 B Street in Carlisle later this summer, the air monitor was recently disconnected and placed into storage pending the outcome of talks between The Sentinel, the Clean Air Board of Central Pennsylvania and UPMC Pinnacle Carlisle to find a new home for the monitor.
In September 2008, the three organizations formed the Partnership to protect the health of Carlisle area residents by providing them air quality data. The BAM-1020 monitor went online two months later in November 2008.
The Sentinel Building was recently sold to the manufacturing partnership Amish Country Bakehouse, and plans are underway to eventually move the newspaper operation to the Wheelhouse property at B and College streets in the borough.
As a result, the Clean Air Board is working with The Sentinel and UPMC to find a new location for the monitor that would allow for the collection of data on local conditions, said Thomas Au, CAB president. He said the monitor has to be mounted 10 to 30 feet off the ground in a location within a residential area but away from industrial sites that could skew the results.
Until May 3, the monitor provided real-time data on PM2.5 levels in the form of hourly readings posted on the newspaper website at www.cumberlink.com and daily measurements published on the weather page of the print edition.
Particulate matter, or PM, is the term for particles found in the air that could be suspended for long periods of time. While some particles are large or dark enough to be visible as smoke or soot, others are so small the particles can only be detected with an electron microscope. Fine particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter can lodge deeply into the lungs and pose the greatest health risks.
The BAM-1020 monitor takes a reading every hour and then averages the readings into a daily rate. The readings are color-coded with green being a good level, yellow moderate, orange unhealthy and so on. The Sentinel recently downloaded more than nine years of data and turned over the information to Clean Air Board leaders who have been in contact with Maiko Arashiro, an assistant professor of environmental studies and science at Dickinson College.
Arashiro plans to review the data next fall to determine if it is useful enough for a detailed analysis on air quality trends in the Carlisle area since 2008.
“I’ve not seen it yet,” she said. “It may not be able to tell us anything.”
Carlisle is in a valley with mountains to the north and south. That topography can cause a lack of air movement that can trap pollutants close to the surface.
The town is nestled between the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Interstate 81, which makes Carlisle the kind of transportation hub to draw a large number of warehouses and a high volume of truck traffic. Many believe particulates in diesel engine exhaust cause health problems.
If her review proves the data is useful, Arashiro’s next step would be to develop a methodology that could include comparing the levels of fine particulates to changes in land use patterns that track the construction of warehouses since the BAM-1020 went online in November 2008. Such an analysis could include a study of traffic volumes at peak PM2.5 levels to see if there is a correlation.
There are limits on how the data can be used. The BAM-1020 was designed to measure fine particulate matter, one type of air pollutant, Arashiro said. “This is only just one snapshot.” She said weather data could be useful, but care must be taken to not extrapolate too much.
Arashiro plans to ask a student to help her screen the data. She teaches classes on air pollution and health to Dickinson College juniors and seniors. She said even if the monitor data is unsuitable for detailed analysis it can be used as a teaching tool.
She is among the Dickinson professors who employ place-based education techniques that immerse students in local heritage, culture and landscapes. In science, this takes the form of gathering air, water and soil samples from Carlisle natural resources, Arashiro said.
“It was incredible for Carlisle residents to have access to that data,” she said. “It educated the community about potential air hazards. It allowed residents to make their own choices.”
Tom Benjey, a Clean Air Board member, agreed.
“They can make decisions on what to do with their daily lives … whether to exercise outdoors or not,” he said. Benjey said readers were able to use the printed result in the daily newspaper to see the connection between the air quality level and how they felt the previous day.
Making the readings available and understandable to the public is consistent with the mission of the American Lung Association, said Kevin Stewart, director of environmental health for the mid-Atlantic region. “They know how to take action in their own lives and to protect themselves when air quality is poor.”
The data might also be shared with experts in etiology at Penn State Hershey Medical Center, Au said. Etiology is the science and study of the causes or origins of disease.
In this case, Au said, the experts could compare data from the BAM-1020 monitor with hospital records to see if there is a correlation between high pollution days and admission rates for serious illnesses.
“We would like to see what the trends are,” said Jennifer McKenna, a founding member of the Clean Air Board. She said that maybe a future etiological study could be one on whether a connection exists between air pollution and the incidence of pulmonary disease in Cumberland Valley residents.
The Clean Air Board was organized in 2006 after more than 100 area doctors took out a full-page ad in The Sentinel that was published on Aug. 23, 2005. The doctors cited American Lung Association statistics that listed the Harrisburg-Lebanon-Carlisle region as being the 24th most polluted region in the nation.