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Breathing in Lancaster County

Places like Thailand have the worst air quality in the world, and the hills and valleys of Thailand are a lot like Pennsylvania’s terrain.

Even though Dr. Greg Blumberg, assistant professor in Earth Sciences at Millersville, has asthma and his mom called him the “human barometer” growing up, his intense interest and study of air quality didn’t come until after he received his doctorate.

Blumberg grew up in Texas and would have flare-ups when the air quality was bad. In Lancaster, he has two air purifiers in his house and often wears a mask when working outside during an unhealthy air quality day to breathe easier.

People love to talk about the weather, and the air quality is often added to many conversations because of smoke from wildfires during the summer months, firewood in the winter months and other pollution. “Places like Thailand have the worst air quality in the world, and interestingly enough, the hills and valleys of Thailand are a lot like Pennsylvania’s terrain,” says Blumberg. “Our terrain looks like a bowl, and the smoke settles into the bottom.”

With discussion of air quality in South Central PA, the AQI (Air Quality Index) and PM2.5 (particulate matter) categories have become common vernacular. The AQI is a measurement from the Environmental Protection Agency and ranges from 0 to 500, with different numbers equating to different levels of health concern. Blumberg explains that PM2.5 are fine particles. Particles 10 micrometers or smaller can enter our nose and lungs, and finer particles of 2.5 micrometers or smaller can even enter our bloodstream.

PM2.5 doesn’t only come from wildfire smoke. These particles are dangerous pollutants also prevalent in vehicle exhaust and from burning fuels like wood, oil, or coal. When fine particulate pollution is extremely high, experts recommend that people reduce their time spent outside, avoid intense activity, use air filters, or wear respirator masks.

Keelie N Steiner is a senior at Millersville who is quite engaged in studying air quality. She helped put air quality measuring equipment at the intersection of Highway 30 and 283 in Lancaster County. “My work is making sure the instruments will run remotely – I have them hooked up to two computers,” explains Steiner. “We’re also getting ready to put equipment in a new shed outside Caputo to monitor the air quality.”

Blumberg and Dr. Rich Clark, who recently retired from Millersville, are in the planning stages of a field project to study air quality in our region. “We have a drone in the Earth Sciences department that we can use to lift our air quality instruments.  This drone was funded by the University and contributions from the One-Day Give,” says Blumberg. “And we could also use our kites. The kites were provided by the AEROKATS and Rover Educational Network, a NASA Science Activation Team. They want to introduce NASA technology and practices in authentic, experimental learning environments.”

There are multiple ways that students at Millersville will be involved in studying air quality this fall. Blumberg says both his “Chemistry of the Atmosphere” and “Meteorological Instrumentation” deal with air quality. “We have lots of instrumentation in the meteorology program so that students can get hands-on experience. I can take them outside and say, here’s our Lidar; turn it on and make some hypotheses as to what is happening with the air quality. It helps to build their confidence.”

Emmanuel Owusu is a graduate student at Millersville who has interest in Environmental and Occupation Health Science and was recruited to help with air quality testing. Originally from Ghana, Owusu is interested in the diseases that result from environmental pollution such as the negative impact of air pollution on human health across the globe. “There have been several studies that show a significant association between PM2.5 and eye problems such as glaucoma, dry eye disease, maculopathy and cataracts,” says Owusu.

There are many careers in air quality, from working with the EPA and the various weather services to conducting research for companies. “Even Mars Candy has hired meteorologists to predict climate impacts on chocolate,” says Blumberg.

“Climate change is certainly a factor here as we see increases in the length of fire season, as well as the frequency and severity of fires,” says Blumberg. “As temperatures become warmer and the atmosphere dries, it loads the dice against us. Climate change is the steroids that make fires harder to combat.”

He says it’s hard to say if poor air quality from the Canada fires will be a continuous issue for the Millersville area, but “the Earth is telling us, we better get on it.”

Having conversations about air quality and its connection to the climate is the number one thing people can do to help. “If we’re talking about it, we see it as a problem, and that’s what will help us enact solutions,” says Blumberg.




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