Student detects eatery air pollution

by Elisse Miller

The air in East Commons may fail U.S. Environmental Protection Agency pollution standards, according to student research.

Public health senior Kathryn Paras has discovered a high concentration of particulate matter 2.5 in East Commons, which is a small air particle made of various chemicals. The inhalation of PM2.5 affects both the heart and lungs, and can lead to health problems such as difficulty breathing and nonfatal heart attacks. The particle is especially dangerous because of its size; it’s easy for the particle to enter the bloodstream because it’s so small.

The EPA sets an air quality standard for PM2.5 at 35 micrograms per cubic meter of air. According to Paras’ findings, East Commons has an average of 132 micrograms of PM2.5 per cubic meter of air.

Paras said she doesn’t want this data to scare anyone, but simply wants to start a dialogue about the issue.

“I think the best thing right now would be to gain awareness about it,” Paras said. “Get people interested in the subject, and then from there you can start talking to policymakers.”

Paras discovered the high numbers while working on a research project for her air-quality course taught by Public Health Associate Professor Zohir Chowdhury. She took a machine that measures PM2.5 around campus and was shocked to see a large spike in the level of PM2.5 in East Commons instead of areas such as the trolley station or the construction site at Storm and Nasatir Hall.

With such dramatic data, Paras and Chowdhury assumed there was a machine malfunction. However, Paras calibrated the equipment and repeated the study several times. All subsequent results still agreed with her initial findings.

After Paras confirmed that the PM2.5 levels were indeed high in East Commons, she took her research further by identifying what specific areas in East Commons had the highest concentrations. She found the area right between Daphne’s and Panda Express had the highest concentration, and the seating area in the back had the lowest. She also found the PM2.5 concentration is the highest at about 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., right before and during the lunch rush. These results have led Paras and Chowdhury to believe that the main source of PM2.5 in East Commons is the burning of fuels for cooking.

San Diego State Dining Services Director Paul Melchior said this is new information to him, but he’d like to see further development of this data by comparing it to other food court research and definitively determining the source of the PM2.5 in East Commons. He said that safety is the utmost concern of Dining Services.

“We always works closely with SDSU’s Environmental Health and Safety Department,” Melchior said.

Paras presented her research at this year’s SDSU Student Research Symposium where she won the Outstanding Compact Scholar Researcher Award for highest scoring poster presentation.

Paras said her biggest question at this point is if there’s a national trend of high concentrations of PM2.5 in food courts. The current research on it is slim, but what’s been published has generally supported Paras’ research thus far. Paras has already measured PM2.5 in Plaza Bonita Mall, and her initial findings show a spike in PM2.5 in its food court as well.

Despite these results, Paras’ research is still only in its initial stages. PM2.5 can be made up of a variety of chemicals, and Chowdhury is afraid that the PM2.5 inside East Commons may be made of harmful black carbon, also known as soot.

“If black carbon levels are high, that’s really concerning,” Chowdhury said. “We want to see if there is soot emission from the combustion of the fuel … that would pinpoint directly that it (the cause of the PM2.5) is the fuel and cooking activity, for sure.”

Chowdhury recommends looking into better ventilation and filtration systems to improve the air quality in East Commons.

As for the future of her research, Paras plans to continue measuring the PM2.5 and soot levels in food courts across San Diego.

 Photo by Monica Linzmeier, photo editor