Lowell Lisker likes running on the Pilgrim track. It’s easier on his knees than the pavement. But while his knees may be getting a break, are the fumes from overhead jets landing and taking off at Green Airport a health risk? Would wearing a mask reduce the risk of inhaling ultrafine particles?
That was one of the last questions asked of Dr. Michael Byrns Thursday evening at an informational meeting conducted by the state Department of Health and the Department of Environmental Management on the 2018 Green Airport air quality report. Rep. Joseph McNamara and Senator Michael McCaffrey hosted the meeting at the Pilgrim Senior Center.
So, what about a mask?
Byrns, environmental health risk assessment toxicologist with DOH, questioned what type of mask. When Lisker told him a fabric mask on an elastic, he said while effective on particles it wouldn’t stop the ultrafine particles that are smaller than 0.1 microns. To catch those Lisker would need a respirator, which Byrns added would restrict his air intake. Lisker is not going to get a respirator.
Janice Pangman, who recently made the final payment on her 30-year mortgage on her house on Rowe Avenue, isn’t thinking about masks. She wants out of the neighborhood and she believes the kids playing at the Winslow Park fields should get out, too. She said the soot from aircraft exhaust streak her house and roof, that the unimpeded wind from across the airfield has blown down fences and even bent metal fence posts and that she has to endure the roar of jet engines.
“I can’t go out in my backyard,” she said. “Those children don’t belong there [Winslow Park]; my house doesn’t belong there…I don’t understand it.”
The air quality report reflects data gathered from four monitoring stations around the airport on a continuous basis taking into consideration winds and temperatures. Under legislation approved in 2008 the state started measuring air pollutants at the airport. That measure was extended in 2017 at which time the number of pollutants measured was lowered to ultrafine particles and black carbon. The monitors are operated by the Rhode Island Airport Corporation and the data interpreted by the Department of Health and Department of Environmental Management.
In opening remarks, McNamara said requirements to monitor the air quality near the airport expire this July and that he and McCaffrey have introduced legislation to extend monitoring for another two years. He credited Warwick residents Michael Zarum and Michele Komar with raising concerns over air pollution caused by the airport and its effect on neighborhoods. He said Rhode Island is one of the first states to monitor ultrafine particles.
Generally, higher levels of pollution can be correlated to wind direction and force as well as aircraft operations. Concentrations of ultrafine particles are comparable to conditions near Route 95 and in downtown Providence, said Byrns. The state is also monitoring air in Providence and East Providence.
Byrns said strides have been made in cleaning up black carbon. Further, as noted in the report, because black carbon monitors are very sensitive and pick up operational factors such as air conditioners, cycling in monitor shelters they “are not currently collecting useful data.”
However, since the report was released Joseph Wendelken, public affairs officer for the Department of Health said in an email said last week that black carbon monitoring has commenced as recommended at the airport.
“Black carbon is now being monitored at the airport,” he said. “There were some challenges with instrumentation earlier on, but the Rhode Island Department of Health [RIDOH]’s State Health Laboratories were able to help address those issues.”
What of ultrafine particles?
Byrns said there are no EPA standards on ultrafine particles and “the science is not understood.”
The report says that, according to the EPA, there is “suggestive but limited evidence that short-term UFP exposures are linked to respiratory and cardiovascular health effects.”
The report goes on to say, “Due to their very small size, UFPs when inhaled can travel deep into the respiratory track and pass across membranes in the body that would block the movement of larger particles.”
What is the effect?
The report refers to a 2015 study by the California EPA that demonstrated a long-term exposure to UFPs contributes to heart disease mortality. The report goes on to say “certain constituents of UFPs including cooper, iron, other metal and elemental carbon [soot] were strongly associated with death from heart attacks.”
Byrns compared the readings to those in Providence and East Providence, observing that levels of pollutants are particularly high on Route 95 during the morning commute hours.
“Are you saying there’s nothing to be worried about?” asked Alfred Guertin who lives on Lydick Avenue and in the flight path that takes aircraft over Pilgrim High. “Am I not any better than an interstate?”
Byrns said the level of UFPs at the Lydick monitor are similar to downtown Providence.
“I’m not saying it’s good,” he said.
In an email Wendelken said, “There are no data that suggest that T.F. Green is affecting the health of people who live near the airport. The report recommends the gathering of slightly different data, as opposed to just ‘more data.’”
Guertin said he has “black rails” on his roof from aircraft exhaust, asking “what is the airport going to do about it?” Soot from exhaust was raised by others, including Ward 6 Councilwoman Donna Travis who also mentioned “film” on swimming pools from aircraft soot.
The report’s recommendation that the Pembroke monitor (which was relocated from Pembroke to Rowe Avenue) be relocated closer to the Winslow Park playing fields, which is also closer to the runway but further away from the residential neighborhood, was questioned. The stated purpose of the site is that it “more accurately reflects the impact of the airport on children in that area.” Guertin questioned the benefit of the relocation, suggesting that a monitor further away from the airport – he mentioned Rocky Point – would provide a comparative reading.
Ward 2 Councilman Jeremy Rix suggested that rather than moving one of the monitoring sites, a fifth be opened.
Ward 3 Councilman Timothy Howe, who lives near Runway 34 at the east side of the airport, asked whether it was safe when he could smell the jet fumes. Byrns didn’t have a conclusive answer, but he was in agreement with Howe’s observation that trees and the natural habitat serve as a barrier to air carried pollution. Howe observed that the playing fields are open to the airport.
“It’s been two years [since the fields were opened] and we’re still waiting for the trees to be planted,” he said.
In response to questions from Zarum, Christine Vitt, RIAC senior vice president and chief infrastructure office, estimated RIAC has paid $3.4 million over 11 years to build and operate the four air quality monitoring stations. Zarum said RIAC has not had a “good history” of interacting with its neighbors, pointing out that at one time the public had a role on an advisory committee and why wasn’t that input followed?
“Her [Pangman’s] house should have been bought out…will you look at that going forward?” he asked.
According to a closing slide in the DOH presentation, the next steps to this program are to determine whether there should be a Public Advisory Committee; where to place monitors; how to best monitor the runway extension and to assess long-term goals of the program to collect data to provide a good understanding of ultrafine levels and at least a year of black carbon data and data southeast of the airport.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Lowell Lisker's last name.