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Environment / Sustainability

CSU employees, students sought for commuter study

Aug. 27, 2014
By Jeff Dodge

Colorado State University researchers are looking for CSU employees and students to participate in an ongoing study focused on the effects of air pollution on Fort Collins commuters.

Ashleigh Kayne, a CSU graduate student in environmental health, sports one of the backpacks used in the study.The Commuter Study is being led by Jennifer Peel and John Volckens, both associate professors in CSU’s Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences. It was launched in October 2012 with a five-year, $2.1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

“Most people commute, and the health impacts can add up, doing this twice a day during your entire working life,” Peel said.

In phase one of the study, which concluded in late 2013, Peel said participants wore special backpacks that collected data on their personal exposure to air pollution over a 36-hour period. Forty-six subjects traveled various routes around Fort Collins, by both car and bike, keeping the backpacks with them at all times.

Other data

The data gathered by the high-tech packs was not limited to air pollutants like black carbon and carbon monoxide. Every 10 seconds, it took a snapshot of various environmental conditions, from temperature and humidity to location and noise. (Noise can affect health too; Peel pointed out that the sound of a large truck might cause stress and affect the cardiovascular system.) In addition, participants documented their activity in a log book, allowing researchers to see what was going on at any given time and match that up with the pollutants collected.

Volckens said preliminary results from the first phase indicate that participants were actually exposed to more air pollutants at home than on their way to and from work.

“The levels in the house can be higher than you think, from cooking or a malfunctioning appliance,” he said. “You don’t think about that because indoor air is not highly regulated. Our built environment has a strong influence on our day-to-day exposure.”

Health effects

Whereas phase one just measured what commuters are exposed to, not how it affected their bodies, phase two involves assessing participants’ short-term health. In the second phase, which started in January, the subjects still wear the backpacks, but they spend a night at the Hilton hotel near campus, walk over to the CSU Environmental Health Building in the morning for a health screening, and then head out on a prescribed 10-mile commuting route that is randomly selected (car or bike; high or low traffic). Participants complete four commutes total. Researchers wrapped up the first cohort of the second phase in May, to avoid the summer high-ozone season.

The health screenings, which include everything from blood-pressure measurements to blood sample collection, primarily target the cardiovascular and respiratory systems by testing things such as inflammation in the lungs and stiffness of the arteries. The screenings are conducted periodically throughout the morning to measure the commute’s effect on the body.

Peel said the study is distinctive for its focus on a medium-sized city ­– similar studies have primarily been done in large metropolitan areas – and for the vast amount of data being collected.

“It’s a lot of data,” she said. “Now we know why no one has done it.”

Mapping options

The study could result in a color-coded map of the city, delineating pollution levels along various commuter routes, or even an interactive system that lets users provide start and end points and generates the route with the lowest environmental impact.

Volckens said officials from the City of Fort Collins have been collaborating on the study by providing traffic data and helping recruit participants.

“They’re very interested in the results, obviously,” he said. “Ultimately we want to empower the citizens of Fort Collins with this information, so that they may make choices to lower their intake of air pollution.”

Whereas the first phase was open to all Fort Collins residents, phase two is relying on CSU employees and students so that their only commute on test days is a prescribed route, and then they can walk to work on campus afterwards.

The CSU research team is looking for about 20 healthy nonsmokers, age 18 or older, to participate in the fall session. Participants will receive $80 per session, plus an additional $150 if all four are completed. For more information or to volunteer, visit http://bit.ly/V8dN8Z.