For as long as Jami Hinshaw can remember, she has coughed, sneezed, sniffled, and felt miserable every September. When she was nine, the Spokane native and WSU alum was diagnosed with asthma.
Last fall, Hinshaw was fighting her usual symptoms, but she was also carrying a portable air quality monitor in a backpack as part of a study to better understand the health effects of agricultural field burning. Researchers from Washington State University are working with their counterparts from the School of Public Health at the University of Washington to examine volunteers’ exposure levels to atmospheric pollutants coming from field burning in the region.
Controversy has swirled in recent years around the practice of field burning. A lawsuit was settled in 2001 that charged the state of Washington with violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by issuing wheat-burning permits to farmers. The state of Idaho is also being sued because of health concerns arising from agricultural field burning practices.
With the help of funding from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Washington State Department of Ecology, researchers in WSU’s Laboratory of Atmospheric Research gave air quality monitors last fall to asthmatic volunteers to carry throughout the day. They also placed monitors in the volunteers’ homes to measure their exposure levels to particulate matter in the air during the field-burning season. At the same time, the volunteers’ asthmatic symptoms were carefully monitored over an eight-week period.
The study also looked at the chemical composition of the smoke to better understand just what might make people sick.
Information from the data could eventually be used to set standards for particulate matter that better reflect its health effects. While the Environmental Protection Agency set standards regulating small particulate matter in the mid-1990s, the exact mechanism of how the tiny particles affect health is not well understood.
“There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that links health effects to the presence of smoke in the air,” says Candis Claiborn, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. “But it’s been difficult to assemble enough hard data to find a statistically significant association.
“We want to know more about people’s exposure to agricultural field burning. We also want to know if exposure to this smoke affects asthmatic adults. We hope the study results will help us better understand smoke exposure risks and reduce future health risks.”
Because this is the first study of its kind, the work will most likely result in more study, said Claiborn. However, in the long term, she envisions that finding a direct health effect could lead to new guidelines on how to manage smoke. For instance, if the researchers find that air quality causes the most health problems during the night hours, perhaps guidelines could eventually call for burning earlier in the day, allowing the smoke to dissipate before nightfall.
“I think that eventually they will be able to manage smoke, so that farmers will be able to burn, and people won’t be affected,” says Claiborn.
For her part, Hinshaw enjoyed participating in the study and didn’t mind carrying around her specialized pack, in spite of curious looks from friends and co-workers.
“I thought it was much lighter than the bags I used to carry around as an undergrad,” she says.