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UB students work with Citizens Science Community Resources to uncover pollution in Tonawanda

UB students and community members affect change through science

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It began with a bucket, a hose, a vacuum and a stench.

In 2004, citizens of Tonawanda, New York began using a “Bucket Brigade,” a method of air sampling, to find out what was making their air stink. The three samples collected over two years showed high levels of benzene, a carcinogen, according to Jackie James-Creedon, the assistant director of Citizens Science Community Resources (CSCR).

“I’ve talked to people who said they’ve smelled it all the way out in Amherst,” James-Creedon said. “I’ve smelled it.”

The benzene had polluted the air so much that it was making people physically ill and unable to leave their homes at certain times of the day.

The New York State guideline micrograms per cubic meter for benzene is 0.13µg/m3 – Tonawanda’s levels were at 54 µg /m3. Micrograms per cubic meter measures the amount of chemical dust, vapor or fumes in ambient air.

“It’s a very distinct smell,” James-Creedon said. “One of the original members [of the Clean Air Coalition of WNY] that took the bucket [as part of the Bucket Brigade], she’s from Riverside, and she said she wasn’t able to walk her dog at certain times.”

Now a decade after the first air samples, CSCR, developed out of the Clean Air Coalition of WNY, is collecting soil samples of lawns in and around Tonawanda. Community members are working with high school and college students – including UB students – to answer questions about the air and soil pollution affecting the community.

When Citizen Science first formed, they didn’t have an end goal in mind.

They were only concerned with collecting air samples, according to Andrew Baumgartner, a senior nuclear medicine and psychology major and the High School Citizens Science Program Director of CSCR.

“Our scope of what we’re doing has broadened a little bit and we changed our name to CSCR,” he said. “We use community-based science to affect change.”

The group was able to reduce air pollution in Tonawanda by using their original air samples in a winning court case against Tonawanda. But air pollution has settled on lawns across the “impact area” of the pollution.

“The air pollution has been reduced,” James-Creedon said. “But we don’t know what’s left over.”

The “leftovers” are what the studies conducted by Citizen Science – and in the future, those by UB in conjunction with CSCR and SUNY Fredonia – are looking for.

James-Creedon said she has fibromyalgia, which causes widespread pain in muscles and soft tissues, and believes it was caused by the air pollution. That, combined with Baumgartner’s interest in chemistry and his community, caused the duo to get involved with finding out what was plaguing the area. Today, students can volunteer to use their knowledge of chemistry to make changes in the community.

Applying the syllabus to the real world

Robert Bennett, a graduate pharmacy student at UB, became involved with CSCR during his sophomore year when he was a chemistry major.

He said Citizen Science helped him understand how his coursework had real implications into research around the community and made him feel he wasn’t in courses “just designed to weed people out.”

Baumgartner agrees, saying the chemistry classes he took at UB, especially organic chemistry, gave him a “very strong foundation” as he did research into pH’s for CSCR tests. He thought it was “amazing” to see the real-world uses of the knowledge he learned in the classroom translate into the study.

Baumgartner teaches high school volunteers involved with CSCR some of the fundamental ideas and concepts he learned in Chemistry 101 and 102 at UB.

Bennett noticed some of the younger students were timid about getting involved, “because they were not as educated and they didn’t want to ruin our work, but when they were educated by Andrew or myself as to why we do certain things certain ways, a lot of them seemed very eager to jump in.”

James-Creedon, who has a BS in chemistry from SUNY Fredonia, said getting involved with CSCR gives the opportunity for some high school students to get involved with science in “a more engaging way.”

“For me in high school, when they were thinking about jobs they always said, ‘Do what you love and make a career out of it,’” Baumgartner said.

James-Creedon thinks she would have been excited and intrigued in an organization like CSCR during her undergraduate years.

Baumgartner saw that excitement in the high school students’ eyes when Citizen Science took them to Test America in Amherst where the soil samples are analyzed. The students put on goggles and lab coats and learned how the samples were evaluated.

It was a “spark moment” for them.

Although most of the samples are collected during the summer, the group says it will begin looking for more volunteers in December or January. Students of all ages, from high-school freshmen to college seniors, are welcome.

The application process is very short, according to Baumgartner, and he has found that grades are not a direct correlation to a volunteer’s ability in the organization. He said that CSCR looks for work ethic, scientific inquiry and the ability to “step up” when needed in its volunteers.

“As they’re going through the process, the more we see that they’re interested, the more we teach them and the further they go in CSCR,” Baumgartner said.

The guilty party

With 50 air-regulated facilities in Tonawanda, it was difficult to pin point exactly who was the culprit of the stench.

The Clean Air Coalition worked directly with representatives from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to determine that Tonawanda Coke Corporation was the main source of benzene polluting Tonawanda’s air.

Tonawanda Coke produces coke, which is smelted with iron ore to produce molten iron as part of the production of steel.

Benzene has been shown to likely cause cancer, skin disorders and harmful effects in reproduction and development in humans. Benzene is indirectly produced in coke ovens, according the Environmental Protection Agency.

On March 19, 2014, Judge William Skretny ordered Tonawanda Coke to pay $12.5 million in fines for 11 violations of the Clean Air Act and three counts of violating the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. They are also required to fund a $711,000 air and soil study run by CSCR, another $11 million University at Buffalo Health Study.

But the verdict is in appeals court, so Citizen Science is waiting for the $711,000 to be released before it can begin the comprehensive study.

In the meantime, the grassroots organization has been able to conduct approximately 30 soil samples for concerned citizens in the Tonawanda-Kenmore area since 2012, according to Baumgartner.

Due to the limitations of their current sampling, CSCR is unable to tell citizens if their lawns are contaminated.

“The Environmental Protection Agency takes six or seven soil samples per property; we’re taking one,” James-Creedon said. “If numbers come out low, we’re not saying you’re OK.”

But James-Creedon said the tests, though limited, still help people get a “peace of mind” because “a lot of people are afraid.”

The Wellness Institute of Greater Buffalo will be holding a community meeting on Sept. 30 from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Sheridan Parkside Community Center in Tonawanda. James-Creedon will be speaking along with presentations given by U.S. Attorney Aaron Mango and Senior Trial Attorney Rocky Piaggione. From UB, Dr. Matt Bonner and Joe Gardella will present projects for health studies and soil sampling and Dr. Jessica Castner will talk about ways to involve more community members in the projects.

Although Citizen Science Community Resources began with an unpleasant odor, the organization is able to help community members put their minds at ease and work to reduce the impact of pollution on their community. The organization also gives students the opportunity to be involved with science in the real world, rather than only working in a sterile lab.

“It all started with us taking an air sample of our own,” James-Creedon said. “We believed in using citizen science for change and that’s what happened.”

email: features@ubspectrum.com


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