What’s in the air

Apr. 01, 2014 @ 04:55 PM

A popular Broadway song from the ’60s proclaimed that “the air, the air is everywhere.” At South Regional Library on Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency was demonstrating the latest hardware and software its researchers use to measure air quality at its N.C. Science Festival Air Fair.

Ron Williams, a research chemist at EPA, was showing the Auge family of Clayton the electric car the EPA uses to measure air quality. He pointed to a graph on a computer that was measuring the pattern of particles in engine exhaust from nearby traffic. “When EPA goes into a community and is doing the highest level of research it can, it uses this vehicle,” Williams said. He also showed them the workings of the Village Green Air Monitor, a solar-powered air monitoring station that measures the amount of ozone and particles in the air, and then transmits that information to an online site. The Village Green Air Monitor is “the only real time reporting station that the EPA operates,” Williams said.
Serendipitously, as if to demonstrate Williams’ point, the air quality flag was changed from green (good) to yellow, or moderate as he was doing the demonstration. The change reflects monitoring data from EPA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Williams said. Sara Kilgore of Cary and her children, Will and James, helped take down the green flag and raise the yellow one. 
The Auges – David and Michelle and their children Elizabeth, Robert and Christiana – learned about the fair from a Triangle Transit advertisement and decided to give it a look, David Auge said. He commented on the aesthetics of the Village Green station, which is a far cry from the balky metallic structures one usually sees. This station resembles a park bench or a seat at a bus stop, he said.
The air fair is part of EPA’s ongoing outreach to educate the public about air quality and its importance to health, said Kelly Leovic, an environmental engineer who works in the agency’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) outreach program. About 200 employees from the EPA’s RTP campus work in outreach as guest speakers, often using hands-on activities.
Tuesday’s science fair had numerous hands-on activities for families. Risa Sayre was at the library with her children Andre and Kell, who played the particle matching game that EPA public health fellow Rachel Kastrinsky led. People were asked to match black and white microscopic photos with different types of particles and fibers – everything from Velcro to road dust. At another table, visitors could blow into a tank that measured their lung capacity, which was then graphed according to the person’s height.
Dana Buchbinder, a student services coordinator in air climate and energy research, was demonstrating two portable air sensors. One sensor measures the amount of carbon dioxide from a person’s breath. Another sensor measured particles. Buchbinder demonstrated how the sensor works by rubbing her hands. The device detected dust, and lit up several red lights. Ann Clegg helped her grandson Cameron, 6, as he took off his jacket and created some dust, which lit up the device.
Small air sensors are an important part of EPA’s program of “citizen science,” said Amanda Kaufman, an environmental health fellow at EPA. In Newark, residents are using the portable sensors to measure pollutants from the airport and the port, and to gather data, she said.
The New England town center was the inspiration for the Village Green Air Monitor, said Gayle Hagler, an environmental engineer with EPA. It has a bench, which sits under solar panels, which feed the batteries and data-gathering computers in a cabinet in back of the bench. Technology has enabled scientists to create a station that is more aesthetically pleasing, and that delivers immediate information, Hagler said.
The electric car has computers that measure for particles and gases. It has been used locally to measure air quality near highways. It also has been transported for research in Atlanta, Chicago, Las Vegas and Detroit, Hagler said.