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Science & Health Rundown: The Air We Breathe

Saint Louis University | Provided

It’s a stretch to think about summer now. 

But close your eyes and imagine.

The sun is shining; bees are buzzing; your arms move through warm air; you even have to mop a thin veil of perspiration from your brow. And on the news in the morning, Geri Mitchell intones the familiar admonition: “It’s a red air quality day. Sensitive groups should avoid exercising outdoors.”

The Air Quality Index was established to tell people who have breathing issues how polluted the air is. According to  airnow.gov:

"The EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] calculates the AQI for five major air pollutants regulated by the Clean Air Act: ground-level ozone, particle pollution (also known as particulate matter), carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide. For each of these pollutants, EPA has established national air quality standards to protect public health. Ground-level ozone and airborne particles are the two pollutants that pose the greatest threat to human health in this country.”

It’s the ground-level ozone part of the explanation that caught my attention because this week, St. Louis University celebrated the second birthday of its Ozone Garden.

I don’t know about you, but I hear “ozone,” and the word “garden” doesn’t naturally follow.  Ozone, after all, is the nasty stuff that makes air bad for us.  What is this project that SLU is doing and how is it a garden?

In this case, the garden is a collaboration led by SLU professor and NASA Air Quality Applied Science Team member, Jack Fishman.  The project has expanded to three gardens in the St. Louis area. And none of them is growing ozone. Rather, the gardens are plots of land where wild and agricultural plants are grown that are particularly sensitive to ozone air pollution. The goal is to show how ozone damages these plants.

Fishman and his team collect ozone data, weather information and leaf injury data and measure the effects of ozone on the living organisms. Here is a linkto the project's website where you can read more about the gardens, how they work and where they are located here.

The latest data from the ozone gardens were released this week, and thedata weren’t uplifting.

In 2013, "both species displayed extensive ozone-induced leaf stippling, chlorosis, and necrosis despite lower ozone levels. Ozone leaf damage was recorded weekly using a scale developed by the National Park Service.”  

Credit (Courtesy of St. Louis University and National Parks Service)
An example of ozone's ill effects on plants. This is black stippling on tall milkweed.

Chlorosis, or an abnormally yellow color of plant tissue, and necrosis, or death of a portion of plant or animal tissue, are not good signs.  (Yes, I had to look those words up). But the team also found that the dried weight of snap beans and soybean pods were lower in ozone sensitive species, indicating the ill effects of ozone on plant life. 

By the way, this isn’t the first time that Fishman, the SLU professor who’s heading up the Ozone Garden, has caught our attention. Last August, Fishman was measuring ozone levels with the help of a huge weather balloon.  Our own Véronique LaCapra reported on that endeavor and I encourage you to check out the article and fun video and pictures from that event, such as the one here:

Credit (Art Chimes)
SLU students Joseph Wilkins, Patrick Walsh, Jackie Ringhausen and Tim Barbeau (standing, from left to right), and Valparaiso Univ. trainers Alex Kotsakis and Mark Spychala (crouching, left to right) stabilize the balloon as it fills with helium.

From Ozone (O3) to Carbon Dioxide (CO2)

SLU isn’t the only area institution looking at the air in our area. Washington University in St. Louis’ Tyson Research Center, located near Eureka, was named a Smithsonian Institution Global Earth Observatory late last year. In January, the St. Louis Post Dispatchwrote about how a small part of the forest is now part of a network of 52 forests around the world selected for studying biodiversity and climate change.

Researchers working at Tyson are looking at the interplay between carbon dioxide emissions and forests, with a focus on how environmental CO2 affects biodiversity. 

The size of the lot at Tyson that is part of the study is relatively small — only 60 acres — and you can get a glimpse of the whole thing from this niftypanaoramicview of the area

Medically speaking

Two other articles that made for good reading this week are worth sharing.  First, was this excellent, if slightly unnerving article aboutitching in the New York Times.  

If you’ve ever wondered why you itch and why it feels so darn good to scratch it, this article does a great job breaking it down for you. It turns out, itching is a whole-brain activity:

“…. itching and scratching engage brain areas involved not only in sensation, but also in mental processes that help explain why we love to scratch: motivation and reward, pleasure, craving and even addiction. What an itch turns on, a scratch turns off — and scratching oneself does it better than being scratched by someone else.”

I confess, after reading the article, I had a hard time reaching the prickly sensation between my shoulder blades. But I was tickled to read that WUSTL is doing its part to research the matter, with its Center for the Study of Itch.

Medical Ethics

Finally, our reporter Bob Joiner keeps his eye on health policy matters for us. This week he read an article that really got us thinking about how doctors have to balance their oath to “do no harm” with the need to obey the law. 

The article, from the journal Health Affairs, is written by a nephrologist who has a patient who needs a kidney transplant.  The doctor describes the physical difficulty of being on dialysis, where patients are tethered to machines for hours every week.  She also describes the majority of the patients in her clinic who haven’t exactly lived the cleanest of lives. But then she tells us about Mr. Rojas:

“He has never used drugs, doesn’t smoke, works a steady job as a dishwasher, and has supportive friends and family in the area. He is young. Mr. Rojas is an ideal kidney transplant candidate,” she writes.

However, Mr. Rojas is an illegal immigrant and, as such, isn’t eligible for a transplant. 

The doctor’s sympathy for Mr. Rojas is matched by her outrage that by denying him a transplant, the system is actually placing a large burden on the taxpayers. 

Shula is the executive editor at St. Louis Public Radio.

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