published June 1, 2008

SENCER E-Newsletter, June 2008, Volume 7, Issue 8

Truman College Program Engages Students in Air Quality Analysis

Incidences of asthma are on the rise in various cities across the country. Studies have shown that mortality rates from asthma have also risen steadily over the last 20 years. Of particular concern are the low-income minority populations that have shown disproportionately higher incidences incidence of asthma morbidity and mortality rates than the population as a whole. However, given the complex nature of asthma, the precise cause of this socioeconomic discrepancy remains to be determined. Various correlations between air quality, molds, cigarette smoke, pets, infections, allergens, poor housing conditions, nutrition, stress, and lack of good medical care have all been noted to play a role in the onset and progression of asthma. Which of these factors play a role in the disproportionate expression of asthma among the low-income minority populations remains unclear. What is not in question is the role of community interventions to address the rising mortality rates from asthma. Lasting solutions to this problem will require the development of programs that are the culmination of the various civic, academic, industry and government partnerships and coalitions. As possible academic partners, community colleges are strategically placed to be pivotal in these collaborations. Their role in training and mentoring the next generation of scientists who are able to bring their science to their communities to solve those problems which are important to them is critical.

Yvonne Harris

In response to the need of community college to be involved in this initiative of civic engagement and undergraduate research training, Harry S. Truman College designed and implemented the Truman Environmental Intervention Project (TEIP) in the Chicago area. The Truman Environmental Intervention Project is designed to examine various environmental risks that threaten public health in Chicago. As the city continues to grow, residents of dense Chicago neighborhoods have become increasingly concerned about the health and environmental effects of airborne concentrations of particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5) diesel exhaust particles and heavy metal pollutants. PM2.5 usually results from various anthropomorphic activities that involve combustion of fuel. They are a risk to both human health and to the environment. They penetrate the lungs more and have been implicated by numerous scientific studies in human respiratory diseases and discomfort, especially among the children and the elderly. Exposure to PM2.5 pollutants has also been implicated in playing a major role in heart disease. Awareness to these pollutants is sharpened given that historical trends across the nation show that affordable housing for most lower or working class families in industrial or previously industrial urban areas tend to be in areas considered environmentally compromised. Environmentally compromised neighborhoods in many ways reflect the disproportionate and, in some cases, racist distribution of funding and maintaining the local infrastructure.

Exposure to these pollutants appears to fall along socioeconomic lines. Middle- and upper-income residents often have the knowledge and resources to move out of high risk areas, command high quality public services and influence political policies and decisions. Therefore, industrial zones are designed to ensure that pollution and traffic are kept out of the high income areas. As has been observed, urban renewal rarely displaces the rich but often relocates or dislocates the poor. We are trying to further understand the connections between infrastructure and environmental risks by examining specific socioeconomic areas of Chicago and determining their respective concentrations of the PM2.5 pollutants. By integrating social science, chemical, ecological and biological methodologies, we can better identify some of the socio-cultural, environmental, and economic factors that contribute to incidents of environmental and socioeconomic segregation that threaten the ecology and health of the community.

In an attempt to determine the specific factors responsible for the increase in mortality rates associated with asthma in low economic minority communities in the Chicagoland area, TEIP student teams were organized to gather empirical data from specific communities and establish correlations between particulate contaminants and various diseases. Teams were composed of students representing social science, biology, ecology and chemistry, and each student served as an expert for their team and were mentored by a SENCER team member relative to their area of expertise. Chemistry, social science, biology and environmental/ecology student experts met with faculty mentors Raymund Torralba (Chemistry), Joshua Jones (Social Science), Yvonne Harris (Biology) and Mahesh Gurung (Ecology), respectively. Each group of students served as an interdisciplinary undergraduate research team that gathered and analyzed data from low-, middle- and high income areas in Chicago and correlated that data to specific health risks or relevant illnesses. During the third quarter, students worked to analyze, interpret and compare their data and prepare for dissemination of the resulting information to the community. For the fourth quarter, students returned to their respective courses and worked on finishing their coursework, coming to terms with the implications of their data and exploring possible solutions of remediation and dissemination of information.

Our methodology involved in constructing the teams involved recruiting students in the fall semesters from the social, physical and life sciences courses to enroll in either Environmental Biology 119 or Social Science 205 in the spring semester. Both courses were scheduled for the same period. This allowed for both non-synchronous and synchronous instruction when needed. Curriculum involved non-synchronous instruction during the first quarter of the semester where students were introduced to the basic concepts and principles of social science or environmental (biology and chemistry) science. During the second quarter the students were involved in synchronous instruction during which both the social science and environmental students and instructors met and formed teams for data collection. Students took advantage of Federal Regulation 40 CFR Part 58 Subpart B 58.10 requiring Illinois to submit to USEPA an annual air monitoring network plan each calendar year. The plan details the monitoring network for the criteria pollutants: carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, ozone, particulate matter (PM 10 and PM 2.5), and lead. The network plan includes the following categories of monitoring sites: NCore (national trend sites), SLAMS (state and local air monitoring sites), SPM (special purpose monitors), PM2.5 speciation sites (trend and state), and PAMS (photochemical assessment monitoring sites). TEIP students gathered PM2.5 and health data collected from the following neighborhood monitoring sites: (1) 3535 East 114th Street, Chicago (Washington High School); (2) 1745 North Springfield Avenue, Chicago (Springfield Pump Station); (3) 7801 Lawndale, Chicago (ComEd Maintenance Building); and (4) 750 Dundee Road, Northbrook (Northbrook Water Plant). Yearly data was collected for period 2002-2007.

This project is in its preliminary stages with future plans to develop a socio-environmental program focused on training and mentoring students to become researchers in environmental activism and justice. Students, who have participated in this course, have shown that this pilot of problem/project based learning in science and civic engagement demonstrated growing skills in critical thinking and problem solving that are the focused outcomes of such learning and civic academic models. At the end of the course, student teams began to challenge the hypothesis that air contaminants were a major contributor to asthma. Rather, citing various studies, students began to explore a possible correlation between air pollution and heart disease.

Students outcomes from the TEIP pilot suggested that by establishing community based undergraduate research programs focused on the environment and the community, two year colleges can play a major role in addressing problems that haunt neighborhoods that do not have the resources to address issues that place them at risk for various diseases and illnesses. Students who participate in such programs can not only learn the science and math but can return to their communities as resident civically responsible and engaged scientists who represent valuable assets to their families and the community at large.