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Then he laughs. But seriously: “If we want our air better, we’ve got to reduce our driving,” he says. “I’d switch to TV research instead of chemistry research if I believed it would really work!”
Tony Ward, a postdoctoral fellow in UM’s Center for Environmental Health Sciences who obtained his doctorate as a member of Smith’s lab during 1997-2002, concurs: “As long as you can strike a balance with improving the emission controls on your cars, trucks and industry with the amount of people who are coming in [to Missoula], then you’re OK,” he says.
Together, Smith and Ward represent much of UM’s brainpower currently working to analyze and improve Missoula’s air quality.
First, the wizard: Smith, who sometimes dons a cape and pointy hat in class, is known for both his creativity and chemistry. But it’s his nearly 13 years of work to address Missoula air pollution from which we all benefit every day. Smith’s partner in these efforts is the Missoula City/County Health Department.
“I’ve always liked projects that have tie-ins with the people who support your school,” he says. “If you’re working for a public institution, you’d like the public to get something back in return for their investment.”
Smith’s work with the city has returned that investment in spades. To put in context how bad Missoula’s air once was, he references a textbook he used to teach environmental studies in New York back in the 1980s. In that book, the case study for a bad airshed was Missoula.
Today, there’s a world of difference in our air, he says. “In fact, Missoula’s air is better than a lot of smaller cities regionally simply because we studied what our problems were and really put our time and effort into working on the big [pollutant] sources.”
Those major sources historically, he says, were wood-burning stoves and sawmill teepee burners. In the 1960s, a teepee burner (a 25-to-30-foot iron cone in which wood chips and sawdust were constantly burned) stood where Southgate Mall is today. Across the Scott Street Bridge, the White Pine Sash mill’s teepee burner was taken down just a decade ago. Such wood-burning sources conducted incomplete combustion, sending remaining particulate matter into the air.
Add to that combustion residue carbon monoxide from cars (Missoulians now drive a collective 1.3 million miles a day, says Smith), as well as finely crushed sand kicked up from tires, and our air fills with potentially hazardous chemicals that can adversely affect our health. And then there’s our valley’s natural winter inversions, which trap these chemicals in the cold air and create, as Ward says, “the perfect outdoor laboratory.”
The Environmental Protection Agency, however, saw no such perfection in our air. In 1986, EPA designated Missoula a “non-attainment” area for failing to meet federal air-pollution regulations for 10-micron particulates. Seven years later, fueled by a 1993 lawsuit in which the American Lung Association sued the EPA arguing that those standards weren’t sufficient to protect public health, “there was quite a bit of an uproar among the environmental community. Clean air advocates and the health department concurred that Missoula really needed to pay attention to reducing particulate levels even more,” Smith says.
In response, Smith worked with the Board of Health (he remains its vice-chair) to identify the sources of particulates in Missoula’s air. At the nearby Smurfit-Stone pulp mill, he helped boiler operators track data from newly modified continuous-monitoring equipment in their stacks. It enabled employees there to receive feedback about the mill’s smoke emissions every six minutes rather than once a day. This continuous monitoring helped the mill reduce its particulate emissions by about 42 percent.
But the pulp mill only accounted for about 15 percent of the particulates, according to Smith’s study. Another 40 percent each came from wood-burning stoves and road dust. So in 1994, the board responded to Smith’s findings by passing new wood-burning stove regulations in Missoula and replacing sand with chemical deicers on the roads. Those changes resulted in roughly another 20 percent reduction in particulate emissions.
But still, not everyone was happy. In 1997, the same year Tony Ward started as Smith’s graduate student, local environmental groups and the EPA concluded a lawsuit alleging Smurfit-Stone had violated emission regulations. The pulp mill settled by donating $690,000 toward addressing environmental issues in Missoula — $120,000 of which was designated for improving air pollution.
Under Smith’s guidance, Ward wrote a proposal and was hired by the local health department to use that $120,000 — plus another $11,000 to $15,000 from the department — to specifically identify the sources of what’s called particulate matter 2.5. EPA added PM 2.5 to the list of regulated pollutants in 1997 in response to the American Lung Association lawsuit. Anticipating this move, the health department sampled for PM 2.5 during 15 days in the winter of 1995-96, producing far too little data on which to base future actions, and all its earlier studies had followed PM 10, a larger particulate category. At any rate, by 2000 Ward’s extensive yearlong PM 2.5 study was under way.
As it turns
out, 2000 also was the year of the now-infamous summer forest fires.
“So here we had all this fancy chemical sampling equipment set up, calibrated, taking samples before, during and after the fire season, and over the winter for the inversions,” Smith says. “Traditional research didn’t continue sampling through the winter to look at what winter emissions were like compared to the summer forest fire emissions.”
What they found was surprising: “The bottom line was that although the summertime fires make lots of smoke and the air looks terrible, the toxic nature of the chemicals in wood smoke isn’t as bad as what we get in winter when we’re breathing awful emissions from vehicle tailpipes or the air displaced out of a gas tank when you refuel,” says Smith.
“There’s a lot more of the nastier organic compounds shown to cause cancer during the winter on every single day that we sampled than what we saw during the summer,” says Ward.
This winter Ward is working on a study that examines indoor air samples in 12 Missoula homes, something that hasn’t been done before. He’s also just wrapped up a seven-county, Western Montana, telephone survey about asthma, showing that asthma levels did increase during forest fire events and winter inversions.
But the work he is most excited about these days is an ongoing study that has identified wood-burning stoves as the greatest source of particulate matter in Libby’s air.
“You’re talking about a community of 2,500 people that has worse air quality than Houston, Denver, Salt Lake City, Seattle — and it’s from wood stoves,” he says. So now he also is studying asthma rates in Libby elementary- and middle-school children and sampling air inside their schools.
Also, he and UM Research Professor Curtis Noonan, in conjunction with Montana Tech in Butte, are preparing for a study of “hot shot” firefighters.” The firefighters will wear personal monitors around their necks to see what levels of particulates they breathe on the job.
Ward’s motivation for working so hard is much like Smith’s. “I really feel like I’m doing something that benefits people,” he says. “I’d go nuts if I had to stay behind a computer all day.