Durham County

How much air pollution is too much? NCCU researchers hit the streets to find out.

The streets around N.C. Central University recently became the laboratory for a two-year experiment examining air pollution.

John Bang, an environmental health professor at NCCU, wanted to know if pollution along Alston Avenue and Lawson Street posed a health risk to residents, commuters and pedestrians.

Researchers found the highest levels of ultrafine particulate matter (UFPs) in winter months during morning rush hour. They completed 1,447 observations during the two years to detect UFPs in the air at various times of day and in summer and winter. Results of the study have not yet been released.

Bang collaborated with researchers from N.C. State, UC-Berkeley and the Desert Research Institute of the Nevada System of Higher Education. They’re presenting their finding Thursday at the NC Breathe Conference at Wake Forest University.

The study dovetailed with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency research released in February that shows minority and poorer communities disproportionately affected by air pollution relative to the overall population. The EPA found African-Americans faced a 54 percent higher health burden compared to the overall population because of air pollution.

Non-white communities overall had a 28 percent higher health burden, and those living under the poverty line had a 35 percent higher burden.

Bang and his colleagues examined the effects of land use, traffic patterns and human activity on air quality on the streets around NCCU.

“This study was intended to produce information on how land-use practices can be applied to reduce the level of exposure to air pollutants in a systematic way,” Bang said. “It was also implemented in a way that can be simulated in many other places with similar conditions.”

UFPs are primarily carbon compounds that become airborne and have the potential to penetrate deep into the lungs. They are found in automobile exhaust, cigarette smoke and many other combustion reactions. Air pollution levels are affected by air temperature, the amount of sunshine, wind and humidity, they said.

Air pollution is linked to premature deaths worldwide because of the raised risk of cardiovascular and other systemic diseases. UFP emissions are difficult to detect and are not currently regulated in the United States, as are larger particulates. It was the first study to closely examine the impact of air pollution in a minority community with the goal of predicting similar conditions in other neighborhoods, Bang said.

The NCCU study findings could be valuable in future land use planning to reduce exposure to air pollutants for local residents, commuters and pedestrians, Bang said.

Joe Johnson: 919-419-6678, @JEJ_HSNews