Environmental chemistry class tests local air and water for harmful pollutants

Environmental chemistry students Akinwande Akinniyi, Trent Kyrk and Ashik Patel test air quality on Bell Ave. with their instructor, Gustavo A. Salazar, Ph.D.
Environmental chemistry students Akinwande Akinniyi, Trent Kyrk and Ashik Patel test air quality on Bell Ave. with their instructor, Gustavo A. Salazar, Ph.D.

Students in an environmental chemistry class at Texas Woman’s University are learning first-hand how harmful pollutants are affecting air and water quality in their own community. The class is part of a larger initiative within the TWU Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry to emphasize sustainability, green chemistry and experiential learning through opportunities like the new environmental chemistry track for undergraduates.

Using a Dylos air quality monitor, one group of students in the class are testing coarse and fine particulate matter in locations across the TWU Denton campus, including the water lily pond, the lawns outside of the Classroom and Faculty Office Building, and the median on Bell Avenue. They are also comparing air quality in older campus buildings with smaller lab spaces to newer buildings with larger rooms and atriums.

Their findings, which will be presented to the class on April 24, show that areas with large amounts of automotive traffic have triple the amount of “fine” particulate matter, which can be harmful when entering the lungs and bloodstream, causing serious health problems. "Similar findings were discovered in older buildings with small, enclosed spaces when compared to newer, more open layouts," said class instructor Gustavo A. Salazar, Ph.D.

The students are learning that variables that affect readings from the Dylos can include weather conditions; a windy day may show a spike in the data while a reading taken just after rainfall is usually much lower than a data from a clear day with no precipitation.

Particulate matter is a combination of pollutants that come from power plants, industrial sites, vehicles and roads. When tiny bits of tires or brakes are picked up off the road by the wind, they enter the atmosphere.

Jenna Rindy, the group’s lab instructor, specializes in urban forestry and says that there are several ways this type of air pollution can be mitigated. Cities may invest in “clean-up initiatives," which may include a revised infrastructure to make traffic move more efficiently and reduce idling (a main cause of pollution), switching to "greener" fuel sources, and planting trees strategically chosen to reduce air pollution.

Although Denton has increased levels of pollutants due to its location directly north of the heavily populated, high-traffic and industrial Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, it also has a large number of trees, particularly Post Oak trees, which are extremely effective in reducing particulate matter in the air.

Another group in the class is examining microplastics found in bottled water and comparing their data with the Denton tap water supply. Plastics degrade and become smaller and smaller, but will never disappear, leading to harmful levels of plastics consumed with commercial food and beverages. Using special nylon filters and microscopes, the group found that while popular brands of bottled water had high levels of microplastics, local tap water contained negligible levels of the harmful pollutants.

Career outlook

For many students, this lab course is their first exposure to environmental chemistry. There is, however, growing demand for graduates who can serve as both indoor and outdoor environmental consultants. More cities around the world are engaging in clean-up initiatives, and they hire environmental consultants to help solve the increasingly urgent problem of airborne pollutants. Private companies often hire consultants to test office buildings for air quality, and construction firms seek out consultants who can assess air quality on building sites so that the best safety measures can be put in place.

TWU's new environmental chemistry courses and undergraduate track will serve to not only educate students about this increasingly important public health issue, but also prepare them for future careers that will benefit public health and safety for generations to come.

Page last updated 8:33 AM, April 22, 2019