Air Pollution: Monitoring the Air You Breathe

Do you think there is any harm in going for a brisk 3-mile run on a summer afternoon in the metro-Atlanta area? It’s not a good idea. The ozone level is highest in the late afternoon and early evening.
Late afternoon readings of ozone are typically highest for the daily cycle of ozone levels. It’s not a good time to be out running.
Temperatures are beginning to rise in Atlanta, and other northern hemisphere cities. And with it, increased air pollution. And increased health problems, especially for youth who have asthma.

There was an interesting article on about how air pollution affects children, and how increased exposure to outdoor polluted air exacerbates the problem. One of the best things that parents and children can do is to be aware of the ozone level for the day, and take the precautions that will lessen asthma related effects.

One place to find the air quality in a USA location is an Air-Now page on the EPA site. In other countries you can contact the environmental protection agency at the government level. For example in Australia, you can find this information at the government’s environment site. Here are some others: China, Canada, UK, Botswana, Argentina.

You can also monitor air pollution yourself. For several years, we worked with students around the world showing them how to monitor the air near their school, and then use the Internet to share their results. The monitoring system we used was a very clever device invented by Gary Short, himself an asthmatic, and entrenpenur. He called the device an ecobadge, and it is a strip of paper that changes color when exposed to the air. Color changes can be used to measure ozone in parts per million. Here are pictures of the ecobadge which you can clip to your shirt and walk about as you monitor the air, and a card showing the color changes used to measure the ozone level.
This is the Ecobadge. A strip of paper that has been chemically treated to react to ozone in the air is slipped into the Ecobadge. The top exposes in one-hour; the bottom in eight-hours. The value of ozone can be read by matching the color change to the color circles or by using a card as shown below.
Ecobadge Card

If you are a teacher, or a parent home schooling, you might take a look at these websites:
Project Ozone
The Globe Program
US Environmental Protection Agency: Ground Level Ozone
Vistanomics: Source of Ozone Monitoring Kits
U.S. Government Clean Air Act

Earthday 2008 for the Birds

Earthday is a day for action and reflection. Some reflection follows:

I read two wonderful books about birds this past year by Bernd Heinrich, professor emeritus of biology at the University of Vermont. The first was the Snoring Bird: My Family’s Journey Through A Century of Biology. It’s a wonderful story of his father’s life which begins in pre-World War I Germany. His father becomes a devoted and famous naturalist, and and lives a life through two world wars in Europe, and comes to Maine where is son, Bernd, becomes an avid biologist at UVM. It’s a wonderful story.
Snoring Bird

The second book I read was Heinrich’s Winter World: The Ingenuity of Animal Survival. Although not entirely about birds, there is amble space devoted to these marvelous and amazing animals, who like their counterparts in nature, have “evolved innovations” to help them survive winter. It’s another marvelous and wonderfully written book.
Our backyard feeders attract a wide variety of birds.
During the past year, my wife and I set up bird feeders in our backyard which boarders a protected wetlands area. I was surely motivated to do this after reading Heinhrich’s books, but also by simply being so close to a nature preserve. Our bird feeds have not only brought many species of birds, especially lots of cardinals, but rabbits (all of whom are named “Bob,”) as well as squirrels, deer, and opossum.
One of hundreds of cardinals that visit us.

As you reflect on Earthday 2008, you might watch this video showing how one person decided to participate in Earthday.

Environment Important to the People, but not at the Presidential Debates

Charles Blow had a very interesting op-ed column in the New York Times today entitled “all atmospherics, no climate.” The op-ed focused on the graph shown below, generated from survey data by the Pew Research Center, which describes the percentage of Americans who think the issues of protecting the environment, and dealing with the energy problem should be top priorities for the president and Congress.

Blow points out that of the 2,372 questions posed by the moderators (primarily national TV anchors of major corporations), only 8 questions asked mentioned global warming or climate change.
Environmental Graph

So here we have one of the most important problems of the day, and it is not being discussed by any of the presidential candidates. There are many reasons for this. It is in the best interests of the network to achieve high ratings, and questions that are most titillating and tend to put the candidates on the defensive help steer toward this goal. The candidates play into this as a way of attacking the personal qualities of their opponents, rather than risk discussing problems and issues that might reveal an inability to deal with “real problems.” It doesn’t really matter why. It is as it is.

I think an interesting reformat of presidential debates would be select senior high school or college students as the moderators, and suggest that they ask questions related to the major issues facing us today: the environment, education, the economy, the war in Iraq & Afghanistan, and jobs. There is very good evidence why this would be a good strategy.

Andrew Revkin, in one of his blog posts, discussed the research done by Mathew LaClair, a high school senior in Kearny, NJ who criticized the way authors of high school text on American Government presented the issue of global warming. Mathew contacted the Center for Inquiry and they in turn wrote a blistering critique of the text, based on his initial research. As a result, the publisher is taking a careful look at the book, not only its treatment of global warming, but other topics as well. Point made. High school students can show more intellect and wisdom than many of the moderators we’ve seen participating in the presidential debates.

Some resources that you might start with if you were to role play this idea in your classroom:

Dot Earth: Andrew C. Revkin’s Weblog about the Environment
Environmental Issues
Georgia State University Economic Forecasting Center
Bureau of Economic Analysis, U.S. Department of Commerce
War in Afghanistan
War in Iraq

Earthday: Time for A Whole Earth Energy Policy: Nuclear Anyone?

Earthday 2008 arrives in just a few days. I’ve been thinking and reading about Earthday, and about how our dependence of fossil fuels impacts all of us all of the time. From buying groceries, to going to work, to enjoying leisure activities. Our dependence on coal and oil as our primary source of energy has led to a critical problem that we face today.

About a year ago I read and wrote about James Lovelock’s book, The Revenge of GAIA: Earth’s Climatic Crisis & The Fate of Humanity. You are probably familiar with Lovelock’s and Lynn Margolis’ (co-discoverer of the GAIA hypothesis) idea that “the Earth behaves as a single, self-regulating system, comprised of physical, chemical, biological and human components. The interactions and feedbacks between component parts are complex and exhibit multi-scale termporal and spatial variability” (Lovelock, The Revenge of GAIA, p. xvi).

Revenge of GAIA

In his book, Lovelock discusses the sources of energy that are available to us, and raises the issue that humans need to seriously consider sources of energy that are being used to derive the energy from various sources. He points out that chemically burning carbon provides at best about 9 kilowatt hours per kilogram of coal or other source of carbon. Nuclear fusion of hydrogen atoms gives us several million times as much, and the energy from splitting uranium is even greater. He then outlines what we might consider Earth’s portfolio of energy sources, and discusses how this energy source has evolved among human societies.

Our energy portfolio includes: Fossil Fuels–coal and oil, natural gas; Hydrogen; Renewables–wind power, wave & tidal energy, hydro-electricity, bio fuels, solar energy; Nuclear Energy–fusion energy, fission energy.

Lovelock suggests that nuclear energy should be relied more than it is, and that reality of the cold war, nuclear proliferation, Chernobyl (and to a lesser extent, Three Mile Island), have created a mind set that nuclear energy of any sort is to be feared. Many of us have grown up in the “nuclear age” or “atomic age” and have come to see nuclear energy and nuclear power plants has harmful and dangerous to the environment. I remember taking one of my graduate classes (a course in Environmental Education) to see The China Syndrome, a film about a reporter and cameraman who discover safety coverups at a nuclear power plant.

Lovelock is not the only one to weigh in and see nuclear energy as important to our energy policy. Patrick Moore, one of the co-founders of Greenpeace, in a Washington Post article, makes the case for nuclear energy. As does Lovelock, Moore does not minimize the threat posed by nuclear material getting into the wrong hands.

You might also want to watch the video in which Stewart Brand, author of the Whole Earth Catalog addresses the 2006 Nuclear Energy Assembly.
Brand video
Stewart Brand addressing the Nuclear Energy Assembly

One of the reviews that I read of Lovelock’s book that I think is pertinent is how Lovelock’s ideas (according to the reviewer) are consistent with Native American or Indigenous science. Energy policy needs to take into consideration Indigenous science, and the GAIA hypothesis as depicted by Lovelock.

As science educators, what views do we hold on an Earthday energy policy? This is a rich area for investigation and study in any of our science classes. As teachers we have an opportunity to help students inform themselves of the way we have used energy, how energy policy is developed, and what policy recommendations should be reviewed and discussed at the government level. And it does not have to be at the national level. More has been done at the local level—the level of cities and towns—than at the national level in many areas of energy policy. A case in point is the US Conference of Mayors Climate Protection plan that puts to shame what is happening in the US Congress and Administration.

What steps do you think teachers might take in involving students in studies and investigations that might be relevant to them?

My First Colonoscopy

Dear Readers,

Two days ago, I discussed two of my “first” experiences using the Internet. Well, today, want to talk about “my first colonoscopy”. For men and women, this is an important procedure that a healthcare provider uses to view the entire colon to see if there are any problems.

Some months ago, I had canceled my first outpatient appointment. A high percentage of people cancel the first time. You can guess why!

Although you only have to do this procedure once every ten years after age 50, one has to get up the nerve, and overcome being a chicken. I guess I over came this, and set up my appointment for yesterday. I arrived at my doctors office with my wife at 6:50 a.m. for a 7.30 appointment. By 9:15, my wife was driving me home with great results.

I have to admit, I don’t remember a thing about the procedure. I was pleasantly invited into the preparation room, and provided with the hospital’s finest garb, a backwards bath robe. Ricky, the nurse, tried one of my veins to set up an intravenous line, which would be used after I was rolled into “THE” room to sedate me with demerol. He had trouble getting the needle into one vein, so he choose an area further down my arm near my wrist. This took a bit of time, giving one more time to think, “Why am I here?” Furthermore this is, as Ricky said, a very sensitive area. I assure you it was! A half-hour after laying on a bed with the needle in my wrist and dressed for the occasion, I was rolled at about 50 mph into the procedure room. After some hellos and how are you doing from my doctor, I was given some demerol by Kevin (another nurse) and the next thing I remember was waking up about 45 minutes later to my wife’s beautiful face.

Light headed, and with no experience of any pain, but actually just a very nice feeling, I dressed, and was wheeled to my car, and off we went to MacDonald’s for coffee and pancakes. How good is that!

A colonscopy every 10 years is the best way to screen for colon cancer. More than 50,000 people die from colon cancer each year, making it second leading cause of death by cancer. Studies suggest that getting a colonoscopy can reduce the average person’s risk of getting colon cancer by 90%. A study, however, has found that some polyp (flat ones), are hard to detect during the colonoscopy procedure. However the best chance of finding these types of polyps is good preparation on the part of the patient the day before the procedure. I drank two quarts of a laxative-gatorade solution the day before the procedure.

Here is an interesting video on colonoscopy by CBS News.

It was a procedure I had put off probably longer than I should have. In my case, no polyps were discovered, and I was given a clean bill of health. I still can not believe that I went through the procedure. I don’t remember a thing. But I do know this: I recommend you follow through and experience your first colonoscopy.

Best regards,