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Student Air Monitoring Project


Imagine that you are walking down the street on your way home from school. It's a beautiful afternoon and you are busy texting a friend when a diesel truck roars up from behind you and then passes by, leaving you in a cloud of black smoke. You hold your breath, but the fact that you can smell the smoke means that it has entered your lungs. You wonder how often trucks like this travel down this road and if the smoke is having an effect on you and other people in the neighborhood.

You walk a little further and smell wood smoke. Someone has a fire blazing in their fireplace or wood stove. It smells nice, but you wonder if this smoke isn't also bad for you.

Do you think these experiences can have an effect on your health? Is there anything that you can do to help reduce or prevent these experiences, to make the air safer to breathe?

Conducting this scientific study gives you the opportunity to observe and document real-life pollution events and to consider the potential health and environmental impacts in your community. You will learn to conduct scientific and investigative research, and to use your results as a foundation for recommending constructive changes in policies, procedures or practices to help reduce or prevent impacts from particulate air pollution.

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What is Black Carbon and Should People be Concerned with It?

Black carbon is a primary component of particulate matter pollution, commonly called soot. It consists of very fine particles that form as a result of incomplete combustion of fuel.

In many places around the world, inefficient indoor cook stoves release lots of black carbon. In industrialized countries like the United States, most black carbon comes from burning coal and diesel oil.

In New Jersey, black carbon is emitted primarily from diesel engines. In addition to trucks, buses and cars, diesel engines are used in trains, ships, farm equipment, construction vehicles, power cranes, drilling equipment, and portable pumps. Hundreds of diesel-powered generators in New Jersey (and many more around the country) are used to produce power for small-scale operations or in an emergency.

Wood burning is another important source of black carbon. As with diesel engines, an individual stove or fireplace may emit a relatively small amount, but because there are so many of these sources, they add up to a large amount of particulate pollution.

Particulate matter, and black carbon specifically, makes people sick. It is a leading cause of respiratory illness and premature death. Every year in New Jersey hundreds of residents die prematurely and suffer heart and lung illnesses because of particulate pollution. Around the world, inefficient cook stoves alone cause millions of premature deaths annually. Also, diesel exhaust can cause cancer.

Black carbon is a major contributor to climate change, second only to carbon dioxide. It heats the atmosphere by absorbing solar radiation. When deposited on snow or ice, it enhances melting. However, because a black carbon particle stays in the atmosphere for only about two weeks, reducing emissions may be the most effective way to slow global warming in the short-term.

Technology and policies are available that can significantly reduce black carbon emissions!

Emissions can be reduced or prevented by using cleaner types of energy, electric vehicles, more efficient engines, cleaner diesel fuels, and controls that capture particulates. There are regulations in New Jersey and at the national level that help reduce emissions, but more can be done. People can help by reducing idling, cutting back on driving, keeping engines operating properly, and reporting vehicles with visible emissions to the NJDEP (1-800-WARNDEP). Newer cleaner technologies will continue to be developed. However, public involvement and demand are critical for any of these solutions to succeed.

Measuring black carbon in the community allows students see what types of sources are out there and where they're located. They can consider ways to reduce those emissions, to help to improve both human and environmental health.