School of Public Health and Community Medicine - University of Washington - Winter 2007
The Clearest Skies
Our Department's History With Air Quality
Measuring Health Effects
Air Quality
Continuing Education & Events
Conference Presentations
People & Places
Student Research Day
The Fine Print

Air Pollution: inside and out

The Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences has been studying air quality for more than half a century. This issue of Environmental Health News reviews our department's history and describes several new studies our investigators are conducting into the sources, control, and health effects of indoor and outdoor air pollution.

The Clearest Skies

The field of air quality research is an example of how University of Washington research benefits the region. The university's role is documented in a new booklet, The Clearest Skies: A history of Seattle's air pollution control efforts, published by the Northwest Center for Particulate Air Pollution and Health (PM Center), funded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The PM Center, which operated from 1999 to 2006, studied particulate pollution from wood smoke and other sources, in collaboration with other agencies that had already amassed significant data on the health effects of wood smoke.

The university's collaborations date back to 1951, when the fledgling Department of Preventive Medicine contracted with the City of Seattle, which was developing a comprehensive air pollution control program. At the time, the UW's new Environmental Research Laboratory (now Environmental Health Laboratory) provided smoke and dust particle analyses.


Until controls were put into place, auto wreckers burned old cars to rid them of rubber, oil, and other nonmetallic substances. Photo by Puget Sound Clean Air Agency.

At first, the laboratory operated out of leased space north of campus on Blakely Street. In 1966 the lab moved to the newly constructed Health Sciences complex as the Environmental Health Division of the UW Department of Preventive Medicine. James McCarroll, known for his research on New York City air pollution at Cornell University, was hired as director.

One of the best-equipped laboratories of its kind, it owned about $200,000 worth of air pollution measurement equipment. The lab had mass, e-ray emission, and infrared spectrometers; a gas chromatograph; and an IBM computer, all exotic instruments at the time. The nephelometer, which became standard equipment in studying air pollution, was invented at the UW.

The Environmental Health Division had strengths in basic and applied research. Peter Breysse was editor of the preventive medicine newsletter in 1968 when he wrote a piece about air pollution that caught the attention of The Seattle Times. Breysse contended that 1960s-era laws failed to distinguish among pollution sources or particle size, and advocated for accurate measuring devices. Instrumentation and measurement have since become hallmarks of our department.

In 1999 the PM Center became one of five centers in the country funded by the US Environmental Protection Agency to study the effects of particulate air pollution on human health. Our region is important because particulate pollution here is different from that in the eastern US. The main components in the Northwest are from car and truck exhaust and burning vegetation. In the eastern US, a major form of particulate air pollution is sulfuric acid whose source is coal-fired power plants.

The PM Center, directed by Jane Koenig, was an interdisciplinary collaboration, with members from the departments of Atmospheric Sciences, Biostatistics, Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences, Civil & Environmental Engineering, and Epidemiology at UW; Civil & Environmental Engineering at Washington State University; and the Institute for Circumpolar Health Studies in Alaska.

The PM Center's research, together with that of other groups around the world, contributed to decisions about air quality standards and to the understanding of how we are affected by the air we breathe.

The PM Center summarized its work with a symposium in January 2005, presenting research ranging from source apportionment analyses to infant bronchiolitis.

Today, air pollution research continues in the laboratories of David Kalman, Joel Kaufman, Koenig, Sally Liu, Dan Luchtel, Dennis Shusterman, Christopher Simpson, and Sverre Vedal; in the Environmental Health Laboratory led by Russell Dills; and in the offcampus Controlled Exposure Facility, led by Kaufman. Investigators are continuing to publish papers based on the PM Center's research.

I think the university ought to take a more active role in solving community health problems... In many cases, the university is the only place where there are a variety of professional disciplines that could meet to discuss collective answers. - Peter Breysse, 1976

The Clearest Skies

The PM Center summarized its efforts in an expanded issue of its newsletter, Smoke, Dust and Haze. The 36-page booklet, The Clearest Skies: A history of Seattle's air pollution control efforts, was edited by PM Center manager Collen Marquist. It can be downloaded at http://depts.washington. edu/pmcenter/pdf/cleanair.pdf or requested in print format from Jennifer Gill, 206-685-4076.

Further Reading