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Particulates slipping through industry cracks.

There may be more to air pollution than what meets the eye.

In fact, it is the fine minute particles slipping through industrial scrubbers and government regulations that have created enough concern to spur Dr. Stacey Ritz, immunologist researcher at the Northern Ontario School of Medicine, to initiate a five-year study on the chemical characterization and biological effects of particulate air pollution in Sudbury. She spent a year researching the links between air pollution and allergic disease at the University of California in Los Angeles, California.

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With an opportunity to set up her own lab and research projects, Ritz has a variety of projects on the go studying the effects of different air pollutants on biological systems. What makes this study unique is its interdisciplinary approach to how the chemistry of particulate air pollution translates into biological impact.

"It is a tough combination because the type of expertise needed for both are very different," she says, thus, the need for a collaborative effort.

Partnered with chemistry specialist Dr. Graeme Spiers, the study began in January 2007. Although five years is proposed, Ritz anticipates it will spill over into a longer period of time.

"I expect once we start doing those studies, the results will give us new avenues to explore and new questions will come up," she says.

Ritz developed the idea for the study after working with Health Canada scientist Dr. Renaud Vincent, who had collected particulate in Ottawa and performed a similar study. Ritz believes pollution can vary from city to city depending on the type of industry, population, transportation, human activity and natural sources like dust, erosion, forest fires, etc.

There have been many epidemiological studies (study of epidemics among large human populations) performed in this field identifying possible relationships, but very little has been done involving biological effects from specific components of the particles.

Interested in the smaller particles found in air pollution that may be escaping from industrial filters and scrubbers, Ritz questions if the current regulated levels for pollution, which are based on mass, are acceptable. Since larger particles are heavier, greater focus has been on reducing larger, more obvious particles in air pollution.

"Increasingly, the scientific evidence that is evolving over the last number of years is saying that mass is not that important."

As more particulate studies come to the fore, greater attention is turning to the impact the smaller particles may have upon the human body.

"It is the little, hard to measure particles that are getting deep into our lungs and even into the blood."

Ritz explains the important factor in determining the health effects has to do with the number of particles or the surface area of the particles. "Those are things that don't necessarily relate well to mass."

She says even though we have reduced the mass in terms of output, we may have increased the number of smaller particles, and inadvertently, caused greater harm.

"It's hard for people to wrap their minds around it, because there is the perception among scientists and laypeople alike that we have less pollution now."

Consequently, Sudbury is an interesting area of study due to its long-standing smelting operations of local mining companies where substantial amounts of airborne contaminants in both gaseous and particulate form are produced and released. According to the 2005 National Pollutant Release Inventory, the CVRD-INCO smelter complex at Copper Cliff is the second-largest industrial source of total air pollution emissions in Canada. As well, sulphur emissions from the super stack have been reportedly dispersed beyond a 60-kilometre radius. Recent studies recorded the concentration of metals in particulate matter (PM) collected in Sudbury had higher concentration of metals, particularly manganese, iron, cobalt and nickel. Although the Ontario Ministry of the Environment monitors fine PM in Sudbury, the National Air Pollution Networks do not.

Whether or not the outcomes of this study will influence policy and lead to tighter regulations on fine PM remains to be seen.

www.nosm.ca

By ADELLE LARMOUR

For Northern Ontario Business
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Author:Larmour, Adelle
Publication:Northern Ontario Business
Date:Dec 1, 2007
Words:669
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