Researchers Use TRAX to Measure Air Pollutants


(Photo Courtesy of Logan Mitchell)

By Kylee Ehmann


(Photo Courtesy of  Logan Mitchell)
(Photo Courtesy of Logan Mitchell)

The inversion is unavoidable in the Salt Lake Valley, but new research may be able to pinpoint specific areas where health risks may increase.

Different locations face varying levels of pollutants. Researchers Logan Mitchell, Erik Crosman, John Horel and John Lin in the U’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences are measuring the spatial pattern of pollutants using TRAX. These measurements may provide data to help link certain areas in Salt Lake with greater health risks.

Mitchell, a postdoctoral scholar, said the idea of attaching a data-collecting box to TRAX came from the desire to get cross-valley air information without paying a daily driver. A pilot program was launched in August to test greenhouse gas levels by placing instruments outside TRAX conductors cabins. These results helped generate interest in the long-term project focusing on air pollution, starting Dec. 8.

The project is currently unfunded and most materials are borrowed or scrounged from other projects, Mitchell said.

A $35 Raspberry Pi computer is used to interface with the instruments and send data to the U through the modem. From there a map is updated showing distribution of pollutants every five minutes.

Luke Leclair-Marzolf, a junior in atmospheric science who was involved in the project, said they’ve started to see patterns in air pollution behavior, but there is still more to learn and discover.

Most information about air quality comes from fixed locations, meaning it only gives accurate pollutant particle levels for specific areas. Mitchell said they’re trying to find exposure levels to examine the population as a whole and see how the pollutants could impact health.

“If you’re studying at the university, you can look downtown when there’s inversion and say the air looks really gross over there, but what is it like [at the U]?” Mitchell said.

When air quality is poor, more people are admitted to the hospital with respiratory issues. Mitchell said they hope this research will help hospitals make connections between who is getting sick and the air quality around where they work and live.

Mitchell said the team doesn’t plan on pushing for air quality reforms. However, he hopes any future regulation will be based on science.

“Our goal is not to say we should do this or that,” Mitchell said, “but to provide the most comprehensive scientific understanding of what is it that’s actually causing the problem.”

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