Air quality monitors placed on Cullowhee campus, Highlands Biological Station

Burt Ogle reviews an air quality index recorded by a Clean Air Carolina sensor on the WCU campus.

The Clean Air Carolina advocacy group recently provided air quality monitors at two Western Carolina University locations for both research and providing real-time data to the public.

The monitors were placed at WCU’s Health and Human Sciences Building on the Cullowhee campus and at the Highlands Biological Station in Highlands to detect weather fluctuations and particle pollution in the region.

WCU effectively becomes a part of Carolina Airkeepers, a citizen scientist network of Clean Air Carolina, said Burt Ogle, professor and director of WCU’s environmental health sciences program. “For an area that is thought to have pristine air, Western North Carolina actually has some significant air quality problems,” Ogle said. “Monitors such as these will help us better understand the quantity and types of air pollutants in the immediate vicinity.”

An air quality sensor.

Lauren Bishop, WCU’s chief sustainability officer, said the air monitors will have multiple applications and prove to be a valuable resource. “To have real-time data available online is an important tool for campus and the community,” Bishop said. “For example, local air quality information would be of interest to anyone who suffers from asthma or has respiratory ailments when they’re considering spending time outdoors, especially whenever there are wildfires in the area or other adverse conditions.”

Bishop said Clean Air Carolina provided the monitors at no cost, while typically there is a fee involved. WCU facilities management and information technology staff handled installation and system link-ups. Students will be involved in data collection and measuring environmental hazards, with applications for course work, research projects and regional ecological assessment.

Wind currents carry airborne contaminants from distant industrial sources to the mountains, with previous research conducted by WCU chemistry and environmental health programs indicating levels of air pollution in the region is often comparable to levels in Los Angles.

“We’re excited to be a part of the Carolina Airkeepers network and appreciate the efforts of Clean Air Carolina,” said Jim Costa, Highlands Biological Station executive director and WCU biology professor. “The local and network-wide air quality data it yields are triply valuable, with scientific, public health and educational applications. The program also dovetails nicely with other environmental monitoring efforts at Highlands Biological Station, such as our climate and wildflower bloom-time monitoring.”

Clean Air Carolina began in 2003 as a coalition to advocate for clean air solutions in the Charlotte region, then expanded into today’s statewide initiative. The group said particle pollution is one of the most serious public health issues, which can vary by location, hence the need for additional monitoring. To see real-time air quality reports, go to www.cleanaircarolina.org/airkeepers/.

For more information, contact WCU’s Office of Sustainability and Energy Management at 828-227-7442.