In name of science, teens brave stares Experiment: Young people are wearing air monitors and portable air pumps on MTA buses to and from three city schools to determine the effects of air pollution on schoolchildren.

July 10, 1996|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

Wearing the latest in personal air monitors, with a clear plastic hose draped over her shoulder, Gia Grier caught other passengers staring at her as she rode the city bus to Western High School in North Baltimore this week.

"They look at you funny, like, 'What's that machine on you?' " the 16-year-old from West Baltimore said with a sheepish grin. "Like I had some kind of horrible disease."

In the name of science, Gia and five other Baltimore teen-agers are braving the strange looks of fellow commuters for the next two weeks. They are going to school, but not for the usual reasons.

Equipped with battery-powered portable air pumps, five of the students are riding Mass Transit Administration buses to and from three city high schools in an attempt to see if city schoolchildren are getting unhealthy doses of diesel soot and other potentially harmful air pollutants every weekday during the school term. For comparison, the sixth student -- also wearing a monitor -- rides to school in the family automobile.

Joseph Jenkins V, 16, a Northern High School student who lives on Woodbourne Avenue, rode buses to and from City College. "I got a very high sample," he said after checking his monitor. "That bus really stank."

The students' bus-riding experiment is part of a federally funded "environmental justice" program run by the University of Maryland at Baltimore. "Environmental justice" focuses on the impact of pollution on poor and minority communities.

With a $600,000 grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Science, the university's program aims to raise environmental awareness among African-American youths in Baltimore and to interest them in related careers.

It also amounts to a summer job. The students, who were recommended by their teachers and principals, get paid $5 an hour for their work over six weeks.

"One of the goals of this project is to provide students with an understanding of the scientific underpinning of pollution and the risks it may pose to their health," said Barbara Sattler, director of the UM School of Medicine's Environmental Health Education Center.

The program is an outgrowth of meetings arranged two years ago with city high school students to discuss urban environmental issues, Sattler said. Air pollution was one of their top concerns.

While smog, or low-level ozone pollution, usually reaches unhealthful levels in Baltimore's suburbs, inner-city residents are exposed to a variety of other harmful air pollutants, especially acid gases and fine particles, which studies have shown can cause respiratory problems and even premature deaths, said John Ondov, an atmospheric chemist at College Park who is supervising the students' research project.

Acid gases and fine particles come from combustion, including oil- and coal-fired power plants, refuse incinerators, wood burning and steel mills. But diesel engine emissions are a major source.

To help identify types and sources of pollutants the students are exposed to, Ondov and his assistant have mounted stationary air monitors near the industrial sector in South Baltimore, at the university's environmental health education center near Federal Hill and on the roofs of the three city high schools attended by the students in the study -- Lake Clifton, City College and Western.

In an effort to trace how much sooty pollution may be coming from the city's two biggest fleets of diesel-powered vehicles, Ondov also got the cooperation of the MTA and the city of Baltimore to add a tiny dose of the rare metal iridium to their diesel fuel stockpiles. If traces of the metal are detected in either the stationary or personal air monitors, that will help researchers identify how much particle pollution comes from buses and sanitation trucks.

"We're not picking on the MTA, but they field 700 buses on the streets," Ondov said, "and the city has 400 to 600 vehicles, many of which are diesel."

City students often get to school by riding MTA buses, and they are exposed to diesel exhaust as they wait at bus stops and make their daily commutes, which may involve bus transfers.

Chereise Coates, who graduated last month from Lake Clifton, is an example. For the experiment, she rides a No. 51 bus from her West Baltimore home to Mondawmin Mall, where she transfers to a No. 22, a trip that can take up to an hour each way.

Chereise also was aware of fellow bus passengers' reactions. "They were, like, moving away from me," she said.

The students got object lessons in how the best-designed experiments can have glitches. A few reported that their personal monitors failed to work on the inaugural bus ride. And Alexis Skinner, a junior at City College, missed her bus the first morning as she struggled to insert the plastic hose in the nozzle on her portable air pump, housed in a blue metallic box a little bigger -- and a lot more conspicuous -- than a pocket-sized radio. She arrived at her destination nearly two hours later.

After each ride, the students remove a fine filter in the end of the plastic hose, which has trapped whatever airborne particles were sucked in by the pump. The students will spend two days a week later in the summer conducting chemical analyses of the air and dust samples they are gathering.

The students also will spend time this summer at the Maryland Department of the Environment and at the city health department. They may present the results of their pollution study at an environmental health conference next year, and there are plans to organize a citywide environmental justice symposium.

"I'm not expecting all of them to be environmental scientists," said Sattler. But she said she hopes all learn they can make a difference in their communities. The students seem enthusiastic about being able to study how much pollution they are exposed to in the city.

"We get to see our ideas come to life," said Chereise, who plans to attend Coppin State College this fall.

Pub Date: 7/10/96

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