Students, professors to take part in $750,000 air pollution study in Smokies

CULLOWHEE – Students and professors from Western Carolina University’s chemistry and environmental health programs will investigate beginning in August whether ozone and other airborne pollutants in the high peaks of Great Smoky Mountains National Park pose a health risk to hikers.

The researchers from Western will be working with colleagues from the University of Tennessee and Emory University. The research is funded by a $750,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

As part of the project, the Mountain Air Quality Coalition of Western North Carolina Tomorrow also will attempt to determine if an increasing amount of traffic in and around the Great Smokies is contributing to worsening air quality in America’s most visited national park.

“The impact of ozone and acid rain on our mountain ecosystem has been well-documented,” said Cynthia Atterholt, associate professor of chemistry at Western, one of three WCU faculty members involved in the project. “We don’t know what effect these pollutants may have on visitors to the park. This project will allow us to study what short-term impact ozone and other fine particles present in haze may have on respiratory health.”

The project will begin in early August at Newfound Gap, a popular trailhead on the North Carolina-Tennessee line. There, teams of graduate and undergraduate students from Western, Tennessee and Emory will recruit volunteer hikers planning to trek to a rocky outcropping called Charlie’s Bunion, located 4 miles from Newfound Gap.

Volunteers will complete a medical questionnaire to provide information about exercise habits and whether they are visitors from outside the immediate vicinity. Researchers will then use a device called a spirometer to measure each volunteer’s lung function. Study participants also will exhale into the spirometer upon the completion of their hikes, and researchers will compare the readings to determine if exposure to air pollution may have an immediate impact on lung function.

“We hope to find out what impact ozone and other air pollutants are having on otherwise healthy people who are involved in strenuous hiking in what is, unfortunately, one of the nation’s most polluted parks,” said David Butcher, head of Western’s chemistry department. “Air quality in the mountains of Western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee has been worsening. We are searching for evidence that this situation is, indeed, a health problem, with the ultimate goal of coming up with a series of recommendations that will lead to a reduction in pollution and improvements to air quality and overall health.”

The researchers will monitor the amount of ozone and other fine particles present in haze, and compare those measurements to the results of respiratory function of hikers. They will continue gathering information from hikers through the end of October before halting for the winter, and will return to Newfound Gap in May, working through July 2003. The yearlong study will enable researchers to factor into their study seasonal fluctuations of atmospheric ozone.

In conjunction with the hiker health study, a second research group will conduct an examination of traffic flow in and around the park, including such heavily visited areas as Gatlinburg, Tenn., and Cherokee. “Pollution from tailpipe emissions contributes more than half of the ozone-causing nitrogen oxide emissions in the Southeast,” said Andrew Goldberg of the Mountain Air Quality Coalition, a project run by Western North Carolina Tomorrow through WCU’s Center for Regional Development.

“We know that vehicle exhaust plays a role in air pollution,” said Phillip Kneller, associate professor of health sciences at Western. “We’re looking to see if there is a correlation between high traffic counts in the park and high levels of ozone and pollution.”

The universities will present their findings to the EPA in November 2003, and will forward recommendations for improving air quality in the park to local, state and federal officials.