Air pollution study goes mobile

Rice University, University of Houston and UTHealth School of Biomedical Informatics collaborate to determine how airborne particles affect health in neighborhoods

Published April 22, 2013


HOUSTON – (April 22, 2013) – An unusual collaboration between atmospheric scientists at Rice University and the University of Houston and Rice sociologists will study how and where air quality in Houston affects the health of citizens.

The researchers led by Rob Griffin, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice, will spend two years roaming the streets in a mobile laboratory to gather data on particulate matter (PM), described as aerosol pollutants smaller than 2.5 micrometers (millionths of a meter) in diameter. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), particles smaller than 10 micrometers can find their way deep into the lungs and into the bloodstream, where they can affect the heart.

Rice sociologists Rachel Kimbro and Justin Denney will match the engineers’ findings to hundreds of thousands of health records of Houstonians collected over the past decade by biomedical informatics specialists at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Biomedical Informatics.

The study funded by the Houston Endowment will show what Houston neighborhoods are most at risk from particles pumped into the atmosphere by traffic and industry.

“Air quality issues compel us for a variety of reasons,” said Denney, an assistant professor of sociology. “In the worlds we work in, people have documented the distribution of disease and death from environmental toxins across populations, and it goes pretty much in the directions you would expect. The most disadvantaged communities suffer the most.

“But Houston is interesting because we have extremely wealthy people as well as extremely poor communities living right next to very busy interstates,” he said. “What matters is the air we breathe, and finding out how it’s distributed throughout the city is going to be interesting.”

Griffin, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, said the study was spurred by new PM regulations set by the EPA, which decreased the standard to a maximum of 12 micrograms per cubic meter. “Houston is right there,” he said.

He said studies of Houston PM has taken a back seat to ozone because the city has never breached the EPA standard. “But no matter how much or how little is in the air, there are potential health impacts,” Griffin said. “Even though the concentrations are below the numerical standard, what it’s made of could have a big impact on human health.”

Griffin said matching PM data to clinical records “will tell us where some of the hotspots are.”

The sociologists want to match PM to cardiovascular and respiratory health. “Now that medical records are going electronic – and at UTHealth, have been for 10 years – we have a treasure trove of health information that can be used for all kinds of things relating to what treatments work best and their costs,” said Kimbro, an associate professor of sociology. “But as far as we know, nobody has used it yet to look at how where you live might impact health.”

Kimbro and Denney will begin their analysis by matching limited PM statistics already available from the city and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality with patient data, but look forward to the more comprehensive data Griffin and Barry Lefer, an associate professor in Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Houston, will collect over the next two years.

Griffin, Lefer and their team hope to assemble a PM database that resembles the comprehensive set on ozone collected over many years by monitoring stations in Houston. No such network of monitors exists for PM, so they will rely on a truck-mounted monitoring system they will deploy most days over the next two years.

The project will begin with a bang in September, when the PM vehicle will be on the streets 24/7 for the entire month as part of an ambitious NASA project, DISCOVER-AQ, which will combine data from ground monitors, aircraft and satellites to measure the effectiveness of satellites to gain an accurate picture of pollution on the ground.

“With our mobile system, we’ll sample air quality to characterize PM better, spatially and temporally, throughout the city,” Griffin said. “In addition, we want to look at specific types of sources. If we know the wind is blowing from east to west one day, we’ll go sit on the west side of the 610 Loop and watch the stuff come off the highway. We may drive slowly along the wind trajectory away from the highway to see how the chemistry changes as a function of time and space.

“We could do the same thing downwind of an airport, industrial facility, the ship channel or a power plant to get a handle on how the chemistry associated with a specific source changes,” he said

All involved look forward to the multidisciplinary nature of the study. “A lot of these projects never have sociologists on them,” Kimbro said. “They don’t understand how people are distributed across a city in terms of ethnicity and inequality and things like that. That’s why Rob brought us into the project. We have that demographic training and the ability to be able to look at how things are spatially distributed.”

“It’s one of the things I like about this project,” Griffin added. “It’s social scientists and physical scientists, it’s Rice and UH, it’s community based and community focused. I’m excited about it.”