Protecting kids from Utah’s worsening dust pollution


With federal funding, professor Kerry Kelly will deploy PM10 monitors at 50 schools to produce highly localized forecasts.

Nearly every day in every corner of Utah, young athletes train or compete in the outdoors, breathing in air that may be, at times, laden with fine particulate matter, dust, ozone, smoke, exhaust and other pollutants.
It’s past time school and health officials got a handle on the exposure kids face when engaged in outdoor activities that are supposed to be healthy, according to Kerry Kelly of University’s College of Engineering.
And she has a plan.

With the help of a million-dollar grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), it’s about to be implemented in collaboration with various agencies. The idea is to install low-cost air quality monitoring equipment targeting specific pollutants all over the state, both inside and outdoors, to help schools, athletic associations and local health districts make data-informed decisions.

“I’m trying to cobble together funding to get 50 outdoor monitors. Ideally, we will eventually go for every athletic field in the state. We’re starting with high schools,” Kelly said. “There are a lot of lungs out there. We’re trying to help people make good decisions. If I can’t really see across the field, should I not be holding this event? Is it fog? Is it particle pollution? What’s going on?”

Utah’s state monitoring network is made up of expensive regulatory equipment, which limits the number of monitors that can be deployed to just 12 mostly urban counties. That leaves 17 rural counties in the dark. While the state monitoring stations closely track fine particulate, or PM2.5, only a few stations look at large particulate, better known as dust, or PM10, particles up to 10 microns in diameter.

Kelly’s project, called Community Resilience through Engaging, Actionable, Timely, high-rEsolution Air Quality Information, or CREATE-AQI, is funded through NSF’s Civic Innovation Challenge program. 

Participating are several agencies, including the Utah Department of Health and Human Services, the Utah Athletic Trainers’ Association, the Utah High School Activities Association, the Utah Division of Air Quality and the Utah State Board of Education.

“Being able to collaborate with the university and for them to be able to provide that research, we can then provide the health education and the health messaging, and also the connection with community partners and stakeholders to actually do something to help Utahans protect their health from hazardous pollutants in the air,” said Alejandra Maldonado, a toxicologist with the Department of Health and Human Services.

With its mountain ranges and valleys, Utah’s “complex” terrain makes air-quality forecasting a highly localized matter, hence the need for a far-flung network of monitors.

“Air quality in one valley can be very different from air quality in another valley or up high,” Kelly said. “People don’t quite understand dust that well. We know there are hotspots that produce dust on the lake, but where’s that going? We have very few regulatory PM10 monitors right now.”

Kelly’s interdisciplinary team includes Heather Holmes and  Pierre-Emmanuel Gaillardon of the College of Engineering; Ross Whitaker, professor in the Kahlert School of Computing; Derek Mallia, research assistant professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences; and Sara Yeo, associate professor in the Department of Communication.

Airborne dust, rising from dried lakebeds, gravel operations, construction activities and feedlots, is becoming a growing air quality challenge in Utah, according to Kelly, a professor of chemical engineering who served for eight years on the Utah Air Quality Board. Unless Great Salt Lake’s water levels rebound, its exposed lakebed is expected to become a major source of dust pollution for Salt Lake City.

Yet the Utah Department of Environmental Quality does not post PM10 levels as it does in real time with other harmful pollutants, such as ozone, PM2.5 and nitrogen oxides, which are measured at its monitoring stations.

Meanwhile blowing dust threatens public health and roadway safety, as painfully demonstrated two years ago after a 22-car pileup on Interstate 15 left eight dead in Utah’s Millard County.

To better understand Utah’s dust problem, Kelly’s team plans to install up to 50 monitors on athletic fields around the state. There are three technological legs supporting the project.

One is improved forecasting, making the forecasts automated, taking the people out of it so you can expand the forecast to the entire state of Utah. Then there’s the sensing leg, taking low-cost air quality measurements.

The outdoor devices, which record both PM2.5 and 10, cost $1,000 to $1,500 each to deploy and connect to the cloud, versus the $40,000 its costs to equip a regulatory-grade station.

The third leg is integrating the measurements with other data sources to produce the forecasts in easy-to-understand formats using visualization and maps.

Kelly’s lab acquires the monitoring equipment off the shelf and evaluates low-cost devices for use in the project. Devices that pass muster will be carefully calibrated to ensure accuracy and deployed into the field with a cellular hookup so they can transmit their measurements to a cloud database.

With sensors deployed at dozens of athletic fields and schools, CREATE-AQI’s system will integrate existing meteorological, dust, wildfire smoke and air-quality forecasting models to automatically generate high spatial resolution air quality forecasts.

“Our long-term vision is you could put these out and warn people that there’s a problem and before tragedy happens. The goal is to put out sensors that are capable of measuring both PM2.5 and PM10, or dust. And to do that cost effectively to get a better understanding of where dust from the Great Salt Lake is hitting and affecting people.,” Kelly said. “And also on a local level like gravel operations and other types of things that might be affecting community members. And the nice thing about dust is that it’s more local and there are things that you can do to address it.”


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