Edition 2015

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Air Quality: It affects all of us

By Bob Nosbisch
NMSU’s College of Health and Social Services, in concert with the New Mexico Environment Department, is monitoring particulate matter in the air along the border.

Particulate monitor

Particulate monitor used to measure airborne dust particles.

The combination of blowing dust, dirt, pollens and ashes in Columbus, N.M., and across the border in Palomas, Mexico, is more than an aesthetic eyesore. These particulate matters pose serious health risks, too.

Even though our respiratory systems filter out larger particles, particles less than 10 microns in diameter (PM10) can get by our respiratory system’s natural defenses. Very tiny particles (PM2.5) can be even more harmful because they can penetrate deeply into our lungs and then be absorbed into the bloodstream.

Ingesting particulate matter is especially dangerous to people with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD, which includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis) and heart disease. Children are at high risk because their lung capacity is not fully developed.

New Mexico State University is addressing this health risk by monitoring the air quality on the border. Larry Olsen, associate dean of NMSU’s College of Health and Social Services, says his office, in concert with the New Mexico Environment Department, measured particulate matter over a year. Supported by funding from the Southwest Consortium for Environmental Research and Policy (SCERP), Olsen’s office collected the particles in equipment called PM2.5 and PM10 monitors.

The results showed the air quality in Columbus met Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards on every day except two. In Palomas, though, EPA standards for air quality were met on only two days.

“We have limited absenteeism data from the preschool in Palomas, where the PM10 is located,” Olsen said. “And we have fairly complete data from the middle school in Columbus. The air quality in Columbus meets what EPA would consider good standards. It’s good quality air, but when the particulate matter seems to rise, about one to two days later absenteeism seems to go up.”

Immediate plans call for the monitoring of people over 65 or under 18 who visit the Palomas clinic or the Ben Archer Health Care Clinic in Columbus for cardiovascular problems, asthma exacerbation or respiratory issues, Olsen said.

“Our data from the PM10 and gas monitors may allow us to see if these health problems are exacerbated by bad air quality,” he said.

Also, Border Patrol absenteeism in the Columbus/Palomas area may be measured. Olsen hopes to get Border Patrol absenteeism records more frequently and he wants to set up a mobile weather station in the area to help with the monitoring.

“Right now, we know the amount of particulates in the air are affected by temperature, precipitation and wind,” he said. “We don’t have any weather stations co-located close enough that would allow us to analyze these climactic variables.”

The biggest challenge in monitoring the air is the distance between the monitoring sites and NMSU, where the results are analyzed, Olsen said.

“Someone has to go over there, pick up the filters, and get them analyzed,” he said. “Because of the amount of money that’s involved, we can’t hire people at the level we need to hire them. The resources just aren’t there to do that.”

Also, NMSU does not have the resources to literally settle the dust in the area by clearing out old, discarded tires and using them to help pave the roads in Palomas, Olsen said.

“An entrepreneur could come in and crumb the waste tires for use in asphalt,” Olsen said. “And it may be cheaper to put tire crumbs into the asphalt and the asphalt on the roads to hold the dust down. In Columbus, the roads are paved. We know what has to be done. The area has to be paved, but this university can’t do the paving.”

To continue the air monitoring project, the College of Health and Social Services has asked for about $112,000 of SCERP’s requested $2.5 million budget. Additional support would come from the New Mexico Department of Health Services Office of Border Health and from Mexico’s Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales or SEMARNAT. SEMARNAT is responsible for developing environmental protection policies that reverse ecological deterioration and promote sustainable use.

Continuing the project is critical because the only other air monitoring station is in the Santa Teresa area “and there’s nothing else until you get into Arizona,” Olsen said.

There are plans to expand the project.

“We’re going to add some passive gas monitors because all that was collected in Columbus and Palomas were particulate matters,” Olsen said. “We know there are other things such as sulfur dioxide, ground ozone and nitrogen oxide that can exacerbate respiratory problems, asthma in children or adults and cardiovascular problems. So we will co-locate these passive gas monitors with PM10 monitors so we will have a more complete picture of the air quality situation. We also will be getting data from a PM2.5 monitor that is on the border.”


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