UT To Help Study Pollution In Great Smoky Mountains

KNOXVILLE — The University of Tennessee is one of three institutions conducting a federally funded study of how to improve air quality in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has awarded $750,000 to a group of researchers from UT, Emory University and Western Carolina University. Dr. Greg Reed, the head of UT’s civil and environmental engineering department, said the study will measure air pollution in the national park, how vehicular traffic in and around the park contributes to pollution, and how the pollution affects hikers.

“This grant allows us to add some information to the basic database about health effects of ozone

Dr. Greg Reed

on human respiratory health,” Reed said. “Knoxville is now ranked in the top ten list of the worst ozone-polluted areas in the nation. Ozone is known to cause respiratory problems. The national park is severely impacted by that, so we decided to use it as a test site.”

During the next year, Reed said, teams of graduate and undergraduate students from UT, Emory and Western Carolina will drive to the parking lot of the Newfound Gap in specially equipped vans. Once there, they will identify hikers planning to travel to a rocky outcropping called Charlie’s Bunion, 4.4 miles northeast of the Newfound Gap.

Those hikers will be asked to complete a medical questionnaire, and then blow into a spirometer, a device that measures lung function. When the subjects return from their hikes, they will again blow into the spirometer.

“We’re hoping we get a whole mixture of kinds of hikers,” Reed said. “We’ll be asking them a series of health questions, so we can categorize them when we do the statistical analysis, in terms of whether they exercise regularly or not, are overweight, live in the area or are visiting from someplace else.”

Dr. Susan Smith, of UT’s health and safety sciences department, said ozone is a lung tissue irritant that has short-term and long-term effects, and they hope to monitor the short-term effects in this study.

“In the laboratory [scientists] have determined that if you were to breathe air that has a lot of

Dr. Susan Smith

ozone in it, it takes up to three days for your large airway passages to react or become constricted or inflamed,” Smith said. “But your small airway passages will react almost immediately, so the small airway passages will be what we’ll measure in the national park,” Smith said.

At the same time, Reed said, they will measure the amount of ozone pollution in the mountain air, and compare it to the recorded levels of lung irritation and constriction in the test subjects.

Dr. Wayne Davis, also of UT’s civil and environmental engineering department, is responsible for the actual monitoring of pollution levels at the start of the Newfound Gap hiking trail.

“We have two portable continuous air monitors that will be set up at the trailhead, monitoring ozone and particulate matter,” Davis said.

He said they want to know how vehicle exhaust in and around the park changes the level of pollution in the mountain air.

“We will evaluate the impact of traffic and traffic congestion on the air quality within the Great

Dr. Wayne Davis

Smoky Mountains National Park and adjacent areas such as Cherokee, North Carolina, and Gatlinburg, Tennessee,” Davis said. “We’re trying to get a better idea of the types of speed and the traffic volumes that are actually occurring in and around the park.”

To get that information, Davis said, they will count the numbers of cars driving on roads inside and adjacent to the national park during the time of the study, and combine that information with historical traffic data from the Tennessee and North Carolina departments of transportation.

Reed said the experiment will take place over a year, so they can account for seasonal fluctuations of atmospheric ozone. At the end of the study, the group will formulate suggestions on improving air quality in the Smokies, and forward them to local, state and federal officials.

“The main motivation for this study,” Reed said, “is the fact that the air quality in the Tennessee Valley has been getting steadily worse over the last 10 years. We want to learn to what extent this increase in pollution is a health problem. But also we can use the data to predict future pollution problems, and recommend policy changes that will reduce pollution and its associated negative health effects.”