July 20, 2006 — The regions near international borders often suffer from unique problems. The air quality along the United States/Mexico border region is an excellent example. To address this issue, a group of University researchers has been selected by the Southwest Consortium for Environmental Research and Policy (SCERP) to search for solutions.
The current research into bad air along the U.S./Mexico border is focused on investigating techniques that can be used to reduce respirable particulate matter (PM). A significant source of airborne dust in the border regions is heavy traffic on unpaved roads. As a part of SCERP, Mechanical Engineering Assistant Professor Eric Pardyjak and his graduate students, Scott Speckart and Prathap Ramamurthy, have been working in collaboration with Pharmacology and Toxicology Research Professor John Veranth to develop effective low-cost airborne dust control strategies such as natural vegetation and man-made wind breaks. Airborne dust is a significant health problem in the border region. It has been linked to numerous illnesses ranging from asthma to lung cancer. One common technique that is used to reduce PM involves spraying water onto unpaved roads and construction sites. As noted by Pardyjak, “While this solution is quite effective, it is not an environmentally conscience solution in arid region where water is a scarce resource.” Manmade and vegetative wind breaks may represent a low-cost, environmentally sound solution, however “the effectiveness of these strategies needs to be quantified and that’s part of what this project aims to do.”
To investigate manmade wind breaks, this project benefits from two different approaches. The first is a recent experiment in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. This experiment”s site is at the Nogales campus of the high school, CONALEP (http://www.conalep.edu.mx). CONALEP is a national technical high school with about 250 campuses from the northern to the southern borders of Mexico. The Nogales campus is located next to a dirt road that experiences heavy traffic during school hours. The high concentration of dust at the school is obvious, as the dust induces increased coughing, nasal and eye irritation, and other symptoms. The goal of the experiment is to observe the effectiveness of a ski fence as a wind break in managing the dust coming from the road.
The second approach has researchers investigating different fence heights at different times of day to observe the effect of these variables. Road dust experiments are dependent upon an uncontrollable variable, the weather. To help deal with this problem a second method, a computer simulation will be used. The program, developed here at the University of Utah, is being used to simulate the Nogales and other previous road dust experiments. The experiments are used to understand the basic physics of road dust and to verify the computer simulations. The simulations are used to perform experiments that would be too expensive or impossible to perform. Simulations are capable of giving insight into “what if” questions.
As part of this project during the month of July, two students and one teacher from the Nogales campus of CONALEP will be working with researchers at the University of Utah to enhance understanding of the physics of particulate dispersion and to participate in modeling studies using the software developed at the University of Utah. The Mexican contingent will arrive on July 23rd and stay through the 29th. This will benefit all parties involved. The students’ active participation in the growing world of computer simulation is an opportunity not enjoyed by many high school students. Also, the exchange of ideas will enhance the current dust project’s relevance in addressing the needs of border residents.
In addition, the researchers at the University of Utah hope that the collaboration with the students and teachers from CONALEP will produce an improved understanding of both the scientific and policy-related aspects of air quality along the United States/Mexico border. “Thus far our collaboration with the CONALEP students, teachers and administrators has been fantastic. By working with local residents, we are much more capable of understanding and addressing the air quality problems that plague the border area,” Pardyjak said.
Congress created SCERP (http://www.scerp.org/) in 1990 to initiate a comprehensive analysis of possible solutions to the acute air, water quality and hazardous waste problems that plague the United States/Mexico border region. SCERP is supported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to utilize a broad, integrated, multidisciplinary approach to address environmental issues along the border. The director of SCERP is Rick Van Schoik. “Binational solutions to transboundary air pollution problems are critical to either and both sides of the border. Only through this kind of collaborative effort can we hope to clean the common air breathed by millions of people,” said Schoik.
The University of Utah is one of five U.S. universities and five Mexican universities selected to be a part of SCERP and it is led at the U by George Hepner from the Department of Geography. All ten Universities perform work in areas from urban planning to renewable energy.