Campus News

Airing it out: Environmental health students’ pollution tests let community breathe easier

The industrial solvent trichloroethylene is classified as an animal, and possibly human, carcinogen. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Georgia produces more TCE air pollution than all but seven other states, at about 231,000 pounds a year.

That fact could be alarming on its own. Now consider that an Athens factory, the Nakanishi Motor Corporation, produces nearly half of Georgia’s total. Also consider that the factory is less than one fourth of a mile away from W.R. Coile Middle School and neighborhoods.

Community groups formed and worried. Could the rates of cancer and other health problems be related to the levels of TCE in the air? Are school children being placed at risk to develop cancer later in life? Should the Clarke County Board of Health ask Nakanishi-where officials have said they may eventually stop using TCE as a degreaser-to halt use of TCE immediately?

The community received comforting answers to their questions, courtesy UGA’s Jeff Fisher, head of the Department of Environmental Health Science and director of the Interdisciplinary Toxicology Program, and a handful of students in the departments of environmental health science and health promotion and behavior in the College of Public Health.

While county health district workers sampled air around the middle school last year, their equipment wasn’t sensitive enough to get an accurate picture of how much TCE might be in the air. However, the UGA students-undergraduate Christine Kendrick, and graduate students Sheppard Martin, Adrienne Gallo, Margarita Ortiz-Serrano and Brandon Simmons-were able to measure TCE in parts per billion.

This spring, after taking part in a community advisory board, the students took air samples at locations near the factory, at private homes, a business and the middle school. Back at the lab, they found good news-that while the TCE levels were detectable, the average level was under one microgram of TCE per cubic meter of air. The suggested federal limit, which is being reviewed now and may change, is five micrograms per cubic meter.

“This project illustrates how a college of public health should serve its community,” Simmons said.

For the students, it was a successful foray into using their skills to help the community.

The experience “allowed me to step out of the classroom setting and conduct research on a public health issue that I had become quite interested in,” Martin said.

“It was a good experience that allowed us to become involved in a real-life situation and to contribute information towards a solution to community concerns,” Kendrick said.

The project has been left open-ended, Fisher said. At the moment, Gallo is creating a community survey to determine area citizens’ environmental concerns, which will be her capstone project for a master’s degree in public health. And depending on the outcome of the survey, Fisher said that a community focus group may form to seek solutions.