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With wildfires burning nearby, local scientists continue groundbreaking air quality research

When the smoke clears

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Most Charlotteans would have been content to go through November with just scant knowledge, if any, of the multiple wildfires burning in the western part of our state.

Around the second week of the month, however, it became impossible to ignore. Shifting winds brought a wall of low-lying smoke from the wildfires into Charlotte, creating a fog-like blanket over the city.

For the most part, the smoke has cleared, but a few fires continue to burn and a shift in the winds could put us back under the cloud. So the question remains: beyond eschewing our views of Uptown and smelling like a camp site, would that put us in harm's way?

Calvin Cupini, an environmental scientist with Clean Air Carolina (CAC), has been working all year to answer that question. Earlier this year, CAC launched the Airkeepers Citizen Science Program, which engages students, teachers and the general public in monitoring fine-particle pollution, also known as particulate matter, on a hyper-local level.

While the smoke was still hanging around in Charlotte last week, we spoke with Cupini in hopes he'd put that in layman's terms for us. We also discussed why his work is important whether there are fires nearby or not.

Creative Loafing: How is the Airkeepers Citizen Science Program being carried out?

Calvin Cupini: It's funded by the Z. Smiths Reynolds Grant, which is $50,000 over two years. We are working with schools and community organizations on localized air quality. So it's not just the broader stuff that you'll get out of the Air Quality Index (AQI). We're going to be in the neighborhoods at a street level using citizen science.

Cupini works with a volunteer in Uptown to measure air quality.
  • Cupini works with a volunteer in Uptown to measure air quality.

What do you mean by citizen science?

Citizen science is the more popular term, but the one I like is contributory science. It is the general public collecting data on behalf of scientists so that you can reach a different scale that an individual scientist wouldn't be able to alone. Like Google Maps. It's monitoring your phone and knows where you are and learns where there's traffic and all that. You couldn't get enough guys up in helicopters talking on the local radio news for that to work. So we're doing that at the air quality level and it's really fast-moving and we're one of the only players doing it.

Using what technology?

It's called the AirBeam. It's completely open-sourced and it's Bluetooth-enabled and has an Android app, which makes it pretty simple for regular folks to use. It also uses the GPS in the device and gives me geo-coded air quality data, specifically on particulate matter — anything that's not a gas in the air; solids and liquids — which is what the wildfires bring.

What are the health implications of having too much particulate matterin the air?

Respiratory illnesses, especially linked to asthma and bronchitis, but there's research too about its effects on the bloodstream and possibly in the brain, because this stuff is small enough to go through a lot of the passageways that things that are only the size of a cell should fit into. Particulate matter is about that same size. So it can go pretty far. So far, it's respiratory that's the most obvious. And there are links to birth defects as well, so pregnant women and young children are especially affected.

Calvin Cupini holds an AirBeam, used to measure air quality at different points around the city. - RYAN PITKIN
  • Ryan Pitkin
  • Calvin Cupini holds an AirBeam, used to measure air quality at different points around the city.

We don't have an actual filter in the body to get that gunk out, and it's so small that it would take a lot of the things that are a part of us at the same time. There would have been no reason for our bodies to evolve a system for it, because it wasn't at these kinds of concentrations.

There isn't a safe level for it. There are safe levels for a lot of other things, where you'll recover from it. This is buildup, and it can act as plaque and it can act as a thousand different things. The scariest part is it's a particle, but we don't know what it is. We talk about lead, we know exactly what that is and what it will do when it meets other things. The last 10 years is all the research that we really have on a macro level. So in terms of something that's a public health concern, it's probably one of the newest.

How is this new program breaking ground in that research?

The current way of doing it, it's at Garinger High School, it's a big shed. We're talking a huge investment from the government, and it does amazing things, but they choose one big, nice piece of equipment in a spot they consider average for the area and that serves as our AQI, it comes out of that machine. But what's happening at Garinger isn't happening in the northwest corridor where our grant work is. It's not the same as what's in Matthews or Pineville and all the like. It's not that [AirBeams] can compete in quality, but in data quantity and with spatial attribution and things we can find out a bit more of a street-level understanding of what's going on.

What are the biggest causes of particulate matter pollution?

Particulate matter is the most localized of all the kinds of pollution. Lead and sulfur are up there too, but particulate matter can actually form in the atmosphere out of other things. Gunk would be the non-scientific term for it. It's just anything that goes out in the atmosphere. Highways and things [are causes] for sure, power generation is pretty heavy, especially if it's combustion. Without putting too blunt of a finger on it, if you have to burn it to make fuel, there will be particulates and a large, large number of them. It's a huge range of a lot of human activity that brings them to unnatural levels.

Are the multiple coal plants in the greater Charlotte area a large cause?

It could be the largest contributor. As of now we just have a philosophical way of pointing a finger. This program will give us a more quantitative way of pointing out sources for the long-term future.

What were your thoughts when you first became aware of the fires burning in western North Carolina?

I was in Asheville for personal reasons, and I was in the middle of it. It was awful. Knowing that that was going on, I took some of my research equipment with me. I was at an AirBnB, and I just set it up on the deck, and the numbers were extremely high. The World Health Organization would say don't go above 50 micrograms per cubic meter, and 200 was where I was seeing my instruments. Looking through some of the data, there were areas with 600. That's just short term, but those are Chinese levels. That's the kind of stuff we see in the horror shots where you don't even see the skyline anymore. And Asheville was that way, you couldn't see the mountains outside of the city.

What did it mean for you once it rolled into Charlotte soon thereafter?

That shows that particulate matter is in one case local, in that those are wildfire damages and you're near the wildfire. And in another sense, it's going to move, so prevailing winds brought that over the southeast as it went by and it caused just as much of a problem for us. So let's say you had some really great idea to ban particulate matter in North Carolina, we're still going to get it from Virginia. It needs to be a huge concerted effort.

How our grant work played into this and made it really cool is that we're one of the only organizations in the country with an array of sensors for air quality. Generally, you do the Garinger model; you stick to one really big, good one and say, "That's what we know." [Our AirBeams] are dotted all over and I'm able to see it working. Right now in the region of our grant work it's less than at Garinger, and it's different too in Matthews. I've got one in SouthPark, one here [at the CAC office near Uptown], UNC Charlotte's got one. And so for the first time in smoke science and particulate distribution, we're able to see it on a geo-spatial scale, rather than, "It was high or low." And that matters to know where it's going to go next, which could lead to forecasting. That's probably the biggest question you would get is, "Alright, I know it has been bad, but what about tomorrow? I was going hiking this weekend," and that's what we're just on the verge of.

A graph measuring particulate matter shows the extent that a shift in winds caused a spike in Charlotte last week.
  • A graph measuring particulate matter shows the extent that a shift in winds caused a spike in Charlotte last week.

We reached 112 micrograms per cubic meter on November 16. Where do we want to be on a regular day?

Less than 10. Charlotte in general is alright with this kind of thing. We have moments that aren't so great, but in general, less than 10 is where people will not notice it. Anybody who's ever gone up to Crowder's Mountain knows the effects. You know if you can get the shot of the city or not, and that's when we're still less than 10. So if views are of any value to people, so should be the health effects.

How worried should we be about those health effects?

Overall it's not a giant, immediate threat. There shouldn't be Zika concern toward this thing where everyone panics, but with this amount of exposure ... if it was only Friday the 11th, when we had the first real whoosh of it, it wouldn't have really been an issue. It would've not been great, especially for the asthmatic, but because it's continuous, it's the 18th, and every day since the 11th it's been on my monitors. The dips that happened are still going to levels where we would be chirping about them as being too high on a regular day.

What should we do in a situation when the levels go high like they have recently?

The simple antidotes are that you're going to want to limit the outside running and stuff like that when it's really high. Choose the Y and go indoors when you can, or do some planks instead, something like that. Stay out of it, because it builds up [in your body] and it won't come out.

To check particulate matter levels in Charlotte, visit aircasting.org, or to volunteer to help CAC by hosting an AirBeam site, visit cleanaircarolina.org.

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