Floating around in the air and invisible to the naked eye, particulate matter can impact an individual's health. The particles can be different sizes, made from a variety of materials and originate from various sources.
Despite Philomath's small population, particulate matter still exists. It's present everywhere. Local resident Jeff Schiminsky, who founded the Philomath-based nonprofit organization, Natural Opus, wondered just how much.
Laurel Kincl, an assistant professor for Oregon State University's College of Public Health and Human Sciences and director of the Community Outreach and Engagement Core of OSU's Environmental Health Sciences Center, is helping answer that question
"I had actually approached the DEQ (Department of Environmental Quality) earlier this year to see if they'd be interested in air monitoring in Philomath and they said we were too small, low on the list," Schiminsky said. "So I was talking to Laurel and she said, 'oh I've got the perfect situation.'"
Schiminsky knew Kincl through the Corvallis Sustainability Coalition and his involvement on an outreach advisory board. During a conversation, air quality came up.
"That kind of stuck in my head. I knew I was going to be teaching this class and we knew we wanted a segment of it to be on air quality," she said. "So, I emailed Jeff."
The class is called Exposure Science and students have advanced into a second part when they get hands-on experience. Measuring and analyzing Philomath's air quality served as a good opportunity for the students while using new air-sampling monitors.
So on the afternoon of Friday, May 15 through the afternoon of Monday, May 18, particulate matter in various Philomath locations was measured.
"This is the very first group of students to use these air samplers ... it was kind of an opportune time for them to get to use their new equipment," Schiminsky said. "It really came together well and just this opportunity to have this class and these public health students to become engaged in the community and gather some really valuable data."
Schiminsky helped with locating air-sampling sites.
"I just went and knocked on doors and explained and asked people if they'd be interested in having air monitoring and only one person said no, that they didn't want to know about it, out of 15," he said. "There was definitely a lot of interest in this project."
With five monitors, the OSU class narrowed the list down to five households with 10 students — five two-person teams — to perform the sampling.
"For us, one of our main objectives is to monitor and track pollution, and we didn't have any baseline data for Philomath," Schiminsky said. "The closest was on Circle Boulevard (in Corvallis), and Circle Boulevard and Main Street in Philomath are whole different worlds."
In addition to the five homes, Kincl said spot measuring also occurred at other locations, including along the highway by a mill and near the quarry.
"We didn't have them track activity and actually document like if this is when a log truck went by or when there was activity at the mill or activity at the quarry or activity at the school, the buses coming in or anything," Kincl added. "So they didn't do that, and I think that'll be the next layer."
Kincl described the monitoring as a screening.
"It's like saying, 'hey, so what is in general the air quality?' And if we do identify that there are some poor air quality times, maybe the next step would be to understand what the source of that is and what is the trigger to it?"
Schiminsky said the limited preliminary data was "kind of what I expected."
"If you're familiar with Philomath, you know we get a lot of heavy log truck activity and sawmills are really active quite a bit, so we had some ideas of what we'd be looking for," he said. "But you never know until you actually go out and collect some data, and then you can compare to other communities."
As far as data collected, students were learning how to analyze the information and create reports for the participating community members. But in general, the sampling showed poor air quality in some spots, and fair in others.
"Some of them were identifying kind of poor air quality," Kincl said. "But it wasn't anything alarming or nothing of major concern. But again, think about it, this was only a couple of time periods. Many things affect the quality of the air."
(Update: After this story had been published, Kincl reported that after further review, errors were found in how students had recorded numbers after downloading data. She said most of the data actually showed good to fair air quality with only some time periods of poor air quality).
"There definitely were some spikes, some exceedances as they call them," Schiminsky said. "And I'd be really curious to get that information and get the time-relationship so we can figure out what activities are causing those spikes."
As indicated, the air monitoring provided only a small glimpse of particulate levels in Philomath. It should be noted that those levels can be vastly different at other times of the year. For example, wood-burning stoves can greatly impact such measurements during colder months.
"We'll be curious to do it at a different time of year, in December or January, and this is a pilot project, maybe we'll do that, maybe we'll have some that are out for a whole year and get just continuous information," Schiminsky said.
He hopes that eventually, locals will be able to easily obtain details about the air quality.
"That's one of our goals is to just have continuous monitoring of air in Philomath," he said. "And then we'll have that posted on a website or through an app where people can find out what it is and so forth .. what the air quality is, maybe something that people themselves can do to lower their exposure to high particulates at certain times."
Schiminsky also said that maybe the testing will lead to a community conversation about air quality.
"I can't think any further of that right now," he said. "This is all pretty new so what we'll do with the data I'm not 100 percent sure."
Is it possible that the OSU program will continue with further testing of Philomath's air?
"I think it will depend on these results and the interest level and if people do have a question about it," Kincl said. "Maybe we can work with them to identify resources for doing more monitoring ... or making a case to the DEQ that a monitoring station should be there. ... It was just a screening to get a picture, it's not all inclusive."
Schiminsky said the whole process was very interesting.
"We'll get a little bit of analysis and take a harder look at this information," he said. "I'd like to present it to the Philomath City Council ... and have a conversation about it as well eventually."