Something in the Air

Something in the Air header image
A chemist travels the globe tracking airborne chemicals that end up in us
Staci Simonich
OSU chemist Staci Simonich follows local dress codes in the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh as she works with local scientists to monitor the region’s air quality. Photo contributed by Staci Simonich.

Staci Simonich is sweating on a rooftop in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. She’s in the heart of a desert in 115-degree heat. And it’s not even noon. Buildings stretch for miles around her into a dull haze that envelops the dusty capital like a bubble. Roasting inside a full-length, black robe called an abayah, she’s calibrating an oven-sized machine that, like a superhuman lung, sucks chemicals and gritty crud out of the air and onto a paper filter.

It’s this gunk that has taken Simonich 7,600 miles from the grassy, green land of milk and honey to this barren, beige land of sand. As a chemist at Oregon State University, she studies how air pollution navigates the globe and ends up in our soil, snow, water, and bodies.

For 10 days last June, she ditched her cowboy boots and pearls and hid her blond hair and 5-foot-9-inch frame under a mandatory black scarf and robe while she advised Saudi scientists in Riyadh. They wanted to know if airborne dust poses a threat to locals’ health and if it contains pesticides and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). The latter are produced when coal, gas, and wood are burned or even when meat is grilled or smoked. PAHs can piggyback on dust and travel thousands of miles through the air. Some cause cancer. Back at her lab at OSU, Simonich examined the filters from Riyadh and did indeed find PAHs and pesticides. She plans to return to Saudi Arabia this summer to help local scientists understand more about what’s in their air.

About 4,000 miles east of Riyadh, the megacity of Beijing is dealing with its own air pollution woes. Atop a seven-story building at Peking University, Simonich and her Chinese colleagues monitored the capital’s air before, during, and after the 2008 Olympics to study the impact of the government’s cleanup efforts.

Beijing traffic
Pollution from traffic and industry combine to block out the morning sun in Beijing
and other urban areas in China. Photo by Dave King.

Despite limiting cars in the city and closing high-pollution factories, Beijing had the darkest and haziest sky Simonich had ever seen. She and her colleagues found that fine particles, the kind that can be trapped in lungs, exceeded the World Health Organization’s acceptable level every day of the Olympics, and the amount of larger particles was two times higher than at the 2004 games in Athens, Greece. Although their air quality measures fluctuated greatly, the researchers found that particulate matter during the Beijing Olympics—when pollution control measures were the strictest—was at least a third lower, on average, than during the weeks leading up to and following the games when restrictions were less stringent or not in effect. If sustained over a person’s lifetime, the pollution controls implemented during the Olympics would halve the number of lung cancer cases in Beijing caused by inhaled PAHs, Simonich concluded.

The summer after the Beijing Olympics, Simonich’s investigation took her to a rural Chinese village in Hebei province to check on a project that measured individual exposure to PAHs. Attention needs to be paid to indoor air pollution in rural homes, Simonich says, given China’s large rural population and its reliance on cooking and heating with fuels such as firewood, corn husks, and liquid petroleum gas. Inside a humble brick house with kitchen walls stained by black smoke, a woman, her husband, and two research assistants were participants in the project. For seven days, they wore air samplers about the size of a camera case slung over their shoulders, while six stationary samplers collected air samples inside and outside the house. Simonich and her team were measuring how much and what types of PAHs the four were inhaling as they gardened, cooked, and conducted other household activities.

indoor cooking, China
Cooking over an open fire contributes to severe air pollution in parts of rural China. Photo by Flickr:tonyyong.

They found that the outdoor PAH concentrations in the rural setting were higher than in some Chinese cities and that the kitchen was heavily contaminated with PAHs, even higher inside the house than outside. One of the PAHs, a carcinogenic compound, exceeded Chinese air quality standards by 548 times in the kitchen, suggesting that the residents are at higher risk of developing lung cancer, Simonich says. Surprisingly, they found that liquid petroleum gas, considered a cleaner energy source than biomass, emitted a similar PAH concentration as firewood.

Back in Oregon, the 9,000-foot Mount Bachelor beckons to skiers—and Simonich. Inside an icicle-covered cement shelter at the summit, she’s changing a filter on an air sampler. Her fingers are practically numb inside her purple lab gloves. She’s there to see if pollutants from Asia hitchhiked on the wind over the Pacific Ocean and landed here—something that can happen in as few as five days.

It turns out that a postcard view is not the only thing that Mount Bachelor visitors have been taking in. They’ve been breathing in PAHs from China and from urban and fire-damaged areas in the western United States. Mount Bachelor is also a landing pad for chemicals from nonstick cookware coatings and stain repellants found on carpets and clothing. She traced these latter compounds to urban areas in the western United States, and to a lesser extent, Asia.

Simonich found banned polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from Oregon and other chemicals that had been outlawed in Canada and the United States several decades ago because they were harmful to human health. Although some of the concentrations from Asia equal those found in large U.S. cities, none of the air samples gathered has been of a concentration high enough to threaten the health of humans or wildlife. That’s because the transport is episodic, Simonich says. Understanding what chemicals are in the air and where they come from will help U.S. regulators understand how global pollutants affect U.S. air quality standards, she says. Her PAH research is funded by a National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Superfund Research grant.

Staci Simonich in her lab
Staci Simonich demonstrates a personal air sampler that she uses in some of her air quality research. The device includes a pump and a red sampler head that is attached near the breathing zone, making it possible to assess the chemicals that a person breathes in during the course of a day. Photo by Lynn Ketchum.

In March 2011, while Simonich’s crew was sampling at Mount Bachelor, an earthquake and tsunami caused a meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan. So Simonich’s crew tested the air for radioactive isotopes from the top of the mountain and a building on campus. The researchers did indeed find isotopes from Japan but they were about 3,000 times lower than regulatory limits—in other words, not a health risk, Simonich says.

Sitting in her office, where a pilates mat and sneakers are scattered under a desk and a white board lists the papers that she and her graduate students are writing, Simonich reflects on the impact of her work. It all boils down to one thing, she says: “What goes around comes around.” That pesticide sprayed on a Chinese apple tree could end up in Oregonians’ lungs. Stain repellent from a carpet in Southern California could find its way to central Oregon. Pollution has no borders. Simonich is tracking these chemicals so that Oregonians know what they’re inhaling. And that’s something we can all breathe easy about.

Published in: Ecosystems, People, Health