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After pollution spike, the rush is on for researchers

By Eddie Collins | Feb. 16, 2017

A spike in Cache Valley’s air pollution earlier this month may have been bad for the health of people in Northern Utah, but it has been good for some researchers at Utah State University.

The inversion culminated in the highest level of particulate matter 2.5, or PM2.5, in a single day since 2005. And that has provided researchers with increased accessibility to samples that are crucial for their work.

“We want to know what air pollutants do to human health,” said Randy Martin, who researches airborne particulate matter in Utah’s Uintah Basin. “If we’re going to try to quantify that, we need to sample our air pollutants.”

Collection of particle samples is Martin’s area of expertise, and it requires understanding of what the particles are made of, their sizes, and how to effectively collect them. During periods of bad pollution, his duties increase with the number of agencies and colleagues who need samples to carry out their own research.

Roger Coulombe, a professor of toxicology at Utah State University, works closely with Martin on research projects, using particle samples to experiment on human lung cells to uncover the biological effects toxins have on the body.

“With this latest pollution episode, we’ve been madly collecting a lot of particulate matter to bring into the lab,” Coulombe said.

Among their focuses: The impact of fine particle pollution on autism.

“There are many studies,” Coulombe said, “showing an association between PM2.5, maternal exposure, and autism in children.”

PM2.5 exposure also has been linked as a possible contributor to instances of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, along with its more visible effects on cardiovascular and respiratory issues.

Despite these findings, however, Martin and Coulombe believe the government could be doing more at state and federal levels to increase awareness and improve the overall environment.

“We have seen reproducible adverse effects on predictive disease markers in the blood of people exposed to 10 micrograms of PM2.5,” Coulombe said. “Many scientists and people in my field think that the ambient standard of 35 micrograms is not sufficiently protective of human health.”

The ambient standard, which is set by the Environmental Protection Agency, dictates what amounts of certain toxins in the air can be considered safe or dangerous.

Martin is hopeful the support for environmental reform will grow as the dangers of air pollution become even more clear.

“Lots of science, the weight of evidence is all pointing that we need to do a better job of cleaning our air,” Martin said. “The biggest thing people need to know is that we’re literally all part of the problem.”

According to Martin, it’s up to Utahns to decide whether air quality is important enough to heed to the discoveries made by the research being performed.