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The Gulf Oil Disaster: Monitoring Air Quality 

The Environmental Protection Agency has set up air sampling equipment in Lafourche, Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes

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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set up air quality monitoring stations along the Gulf Coast and has determined what we breathe to be safe: "EPA's air monitoring to date has found that air quality levels for ozone and particulates are normal on the Gulf coastline for this time of year and odor-causing pollutants associated with petroleum products are being found at low levels," the EPA reports on its website. But what about that oily "gas station" smell?

  Bhaskar Kura, a professor and director of the Maritime Environmental Resources and Information Center at the University of New Orleans (UNO), instituted an air quality assessment program, and later this year he plans to organize a conference ("Environmental Impacts of Oil Spills: Challenges and Potential Solutions") at UNO. Kura helps explain the science of the smell.

  What the EPA is looking for: a number of air pollutants, like fine particles (PM2.5, or particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter) and coarse particles (PM10, or particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter); hydrogen sulfide and hydrocarbons known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from crude oil, like benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene and xylene. But Kura says the EPA's determination that the air is safe is premature. "We do not have complete understanding of the air quality in all locations for all time periods," he says. "Air monitoring is being performed at only select locations and there is a possibility of missing hot spots depending on the wind direction and other meteorological conditions."

  There are nine air-monitoring locations in Louisiana in Lafourche, Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes.

The distinct "oil scent" has frequently appeared in the city, miles away from the oil. Is it toxic?

  "Odors can come from most hydrocarbons or VOCs, and these are considered 'air toxics,' with each compound having different levels of health impact," Kura says. "If the odors were truly from the evaporating hydrocarbons or VOCs, they are of concern."

  The EPA says, "Some of these chemicals may cause short-lived effects like headache, eye, nose and throat irritation or nausea. Some people may be able to smell several of these chemicals at levels well below those that would cause short-term health problems."

Can these pollutants make people sick?

  Crude oil contains pollutants with potential short- and long-term health impacts. Benzene is a carcinogen — exposure to benzene can increase the probability of cancer. Other chemicals in crude also have the potential to impact health, and the elderly, young and sick may respond differently than healthier individuals. Kura says if people experience health problems, "they should make note of their symptoms and visit their health care professionals promptly."

  "Toxicological knowledge indicates that it is possible that the exposed public may experience certain health risks from inhalation of air contaminated with certain chemicals found in crude and natural gas," he says. "Whether people in our region can get sick depends on a number of factors such as sensitivity of individuals, concentration of various toxic compounds in the air (which again depends on the location, wind direction and meteorological conditions), duration of exposures and frequency of exposures."

To what degree are these airborne pollutants harmful to the environment? Any long-term effects?

  Depending on toxicity, concentration and duration of pollutants in the air, Kura says airborne pollutants can cause damage to water, soil, property, crops and the food chain.

View air-monitoring information at www.epa.gov/bpspill/air.html.

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