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April 7, 2005
By Kelee Riesbeck

It's a little known fact among average Ohioans: The same river valley that once made westward expansion and prosperity a reality in America is today home to the country's most dense source of air pollution. From Cincinnati, Ohio, to Pittsburgh, Pa., 42 major coal-fired power plants dot the Ohio River Valley region - more per square mile than anywhere else in the nation. Though it's created an economic windfall, the industry also has fueled environmental problems in the form of smog, acid rain, and haze - not only in Ohio, scientists say, but across the country.

Kevin CristSeveral years ago, Kevin Crist decided it was time to answer the charge and explore solutions from inside the state's borders. "I wanted to get into more regional and global air pollution issues because I saw there was a need," says Crist, associate professor of chemical engineering at Ohio University.

In 1999 Crist formed the Center for Air Quality at Ohio University, a research group that uses new technology to collect air pollution data and make it accessible to researchers and policy makers in the state. The center also conducts studies about how air pollution can affect public health. It's the first broad-based effort to scientifically monitor and measure the emissions generated here.

"Ohio is a big air pollution source region," Crist says. "So what we're doing is making the Center for Air Quality a major air pollution-monitoring site for this area. We hope to benchmark individual power plants with our technology."

Better Science, Better Data

In 1998, Crist sought to answer one important question at the root of the air pollution problem: Does air pollution affect the respiratory health of children? In a maverick move, the researcher recruited fourth- and fifth-graders around Ohio as data collectors. Over one year, he looked at the correlation between students' respiratory health and the presence in and around the schools of ground level ozone (given off by cars and buses) and a certain kind of air pollutant called fine particulate matter. The microscopic toxin has been linked with premature deaths, chronic bronchitis, and asthma - especially in children and elders, who also are susceptible to upper respiratory problems spawned by ground level ozone.

Students from three schools set in different environments - one urban, one suburban, and one rural - participated in the study and reveled in their roles as scientists.

They wore backpacks outfitted with air monitoring instruments that were designed to measure how fast they could exhale air from their lungs. A team directed by Crist and Associate Professor of Psychology Bruce Carlson that included faculty and students from Ohio University installed air quality monitoring equipment on the top of the schools and used data collected from Ohio EPA's eight air pollution monitors placed around the state. The team also checked local hospital records to see how many children visited the emergency room complaining of breathing trouble.

The results of the study showed a higher concentration of fine particulate matter inside the school buildings than outside the buildings, mainly because dirt tracked in and lodged into carpets and fixtures is stirred up as people moved around the building. It also suggested that the correlation between respiratory health and particulate matter varied substantially from one site to another. Finally, the research showed that the correlation between high ground-level ozone levels and hospital admissions was not consistent from location to location.

The study, the first one of its kind, called into question reports that found a measurable, direct relationship between air pollution and respiratory health when averaged over multiple metropolitan areas.

"We now have a solid foundation to conduct future air monitoring research right here in the state," Crist says.

Innovation Powers Progress

With his creative strategies for tackling air pollution questions, Crist has gained a reputation as a premiere air pollution researcher. The success of the Center for Air Quality's research prompted the group to join forces with Ohio University's clean coal researchers to create the Institute for Sustainable Energy and the Environment at the Russ College of Engineering and Technology.

A monitoring station for collecting air pollution data.The institute was awarded $1.2 million from the U.S. Department of Energy in 2003 to build a state-of-the-art air pollution monitoring station on a high hill in Athens, right in the middle of the Ohio River Valley region.

"Our technology can probably identify individual power plant plumes. It's a fantastic location to see what's being blown in and blown out," he says. "Nobody has been benchmarking this stuff until now," he explains.

The station also has air pollution analyzers that feed data into a computer that posts a live picture of air pollution in the region via the Internet. In addition, the Center for Air Quality has built a database of past air pollution studies from all around the country.

Meeting Federal Mandates

Federal EPA legislation drives the way states approach how they will reach compliance. Laws now in the congressional pipeline would require states in a region to work together toward solving air pollution problems and would make states with heavily polluting areas be more accountable for what they emit. One mandate identifies 29 states (Ohio is one) and the District of Columbia as contributors to the non-attainment of new, tougher air quality standards in downwind states. It aims to make pollution control problems more equitable by focusing on local air pollution problems caused by regional sources.

Because Ohio has been in the hot seat as a regional source of air pollution, the center's ability to substantiate those claims with sound scientific methods and controls is, to say the least, to the state's advantage, Crist says.

"We need to make sure we are seeing the same thing the monitoring sites in the northeast are seeing," he says. "We want to answer questions like 'How much is coming from Chicago and blowing through? How much is coming from other midwestern cities?' No one knows. We plan to find out."

One way Crist hopes to solidify the center's ability to answer these questions is through the creation of a new consortium at Ohio University called the Consortium for Energy, the Economy, and the Environment (CE3), which is a collaboration between the Voinovich Center and the Institute for Sustainable Energy and the Environment. The consortium will bring several nationally recognized centers and departments within Ohio University to collaborate on finding further solutions to the Ohio River Valley's conundrum: how to keep jobs and not sacrifice the environment.

"We can be a voice in the region through education and research," he says. "And we can create jobs and train the next generation of researchers and policy-makers to do sound research and choose good policy."

For more information about Kevin Crist and his work, visit the Web at http://oak.cats.ohiou.edu/~cristk/.  

Vision Ohio

Kelee Riesbeck is a freelance writer. This story appears in the spring 2005 issue of Perspectives and will be available online in its entirety in early May.

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