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Your Environment. Your Health.

Working with Students to Explore Indoor Air Pollution in Rural Communities

ARRA Success Story

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Tony Ward, Ph.D.

Assistant professor at the University of Montana Center for Environmental Health Sciences (CEHS)

Troy Ritter

Manager, Environmental Health Consultation Program for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium

Tom Fazzini

Consultant, Environmental Health Consultation Program for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium

Ward, Ritter and Fazzini discuss working with students to explore air pollution in indoor environments in Montana, Idaho and Alaska. Their education efforts in rural areas contribute to the prevention of respiratory diseases such as asthma and lung cancer.

Ward discusses how one high school student in Missoula, Montana, was the genesis for the three-state project

Tony Ward, Ph.D.

"We're educating students on not only air quality, but also how to design research projects and present their findings back to the community. So they're educating themselves, their families, their classmates, and hopefully, at the end of this project, the communities."

- Tony Ward, Ph.D.

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The genesis of the project was at the University of Montana working with one student at Big Sky High School in Missoula, Montana. He's a junior chemistry student. And we provided air sampling equipment to him, that's part of his junior research project. He sampled the homes of sixteen of his classmates. He sampled inside the homes and then directly outside the homes simultaneously and what he showed is that there is seven times higher the concentrations of these air pollutants inside the homes than directly outside the homes.

 

When you think about rural communities in Western Montana and Alaska and Idaho, you think that there's not a lot of air quality issues. Well, that may be true outside, but inside where we spend most of our time, there's significant air pollution exposure; whether it's from a wood stove, from keeping gasoline cans inside the home where you have volatilizing pollutants from the gas, cleaning supplies that are allowed to build up inside your home. So there's lots and lots of sources inside the home. Once you identify what those sources are then you're able to mitigate those sources.

 

The next year, the school liked the project so much that two more classes within that school have joined the program as did three other high schools in our area. As of this year we're up to 15 high schools throughout Western Montana, two on the Nez Perce Indian Reservation and three schools within Alaska.

 

So the project that we partner with Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium was the RC1 capacity building opportunity with the ARRA funding. So we are fortunate enough to receive funding for two years. And the idea is that we incorporate the air toxics from the Big Sky program into seven very remote Alaskan Native Villages throughout Alaska.


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Ward discusses training future students

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Group photo of Fazzini, Ritter and Ward

Fazzini, Ritter and Ward team up with students to tackle indoor air pollution in rural communities

As far as the goal of the program, it's kind of been designed to train future scientists. In the beginning, we focused on air quality and educating students about the importance of good air quality and what happens if you're exposed to poor air quality and that's where we talk about asthma and other respiratory diseases. We try to educate students on the potential sources of air pollution within their homes, and once you're educated about something, then you're informed to make some type of decision on how to change that behavior or those practices that cause high levels of air pollution and then, consequently, adverse health effects.

 

The program has kind of evolved from that. So now we're training future scientists. We're educating students on not only air quality, but how to design research projects, walk through the scientific method, each of the steps and maybe the most important part is presenting their findings. They design little research projects and they collect data and prove or disprove their hypothesis, present their findings and then, as part of this project, one of the steps is to present the findings back to the community. So they're educating not only themselves, but their families, their classmates; but hopefully, at the end of this project, the communities.

 

We started out in one single spot in Missoula. We're now in six different communities in Western Montana, the Idaho panhandle where the Nez Perce Reservation is and through EPA region 10 we received a little bit of funding to introduce the program into Alaska three years ago. And then that allowed us to take the next step as a partner with Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium to write this grant to expand into seven additional villages.


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Ritter discusses job creation in rural Alaskan villages

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Four students, three male and one female, smile and hold up a presentation board

High school students show off the results of their work to peers and the community.

The Alaskan Native tribal Health Consortium provides healthcare and public health services for residents of 229 Alaskan Native tribes. And the program that Tom and I work for is just responsible for providing basic environmental health services. Something that we've done in this program is really, as a matter of focus, gone out into the most remote parts of even Alaska. Places that even the most basic healthcare and public health services are often not delivered because it's just so difficult to get there.

 

And those aren't always the easiest places to work. You have less time for just interaction and you have to really capitalize on the amount of interaction time that you have. So we've been really focusing on taking that extra step and getting out into the communities, meeting people, hearing about their concerns for air quality and really diffusing this program throughout the community.

 

What this project and the Recovery Act money has allowed us to do is, I believe, overall the project is responsible for creating nine new jobs. But the important thing is seven of those are located within the rural Alaskan villages. What we have now is seven coordinators on the ground in the communities who are local tribal residents who can provide information to us about how the community feels about our activities there and also help us shape this activity so that we can really customize it to best fit that community. We've been able to hire those seven people that are really instrumental to the project and from an economic recovery perspective, on average, those villages have about 59 percent unemployment. So to provide seven jobs in areas like that, you're doing a lot economic benefit as well.


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Ritter discusses how the project addresses community concerns about respiratory disease and pollution in Alaska

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Tony Ward, Ph.D., speaks with a student in a classroom

Ward serves as an advisor to many students who are developing science skills and experience in experimental techniques.

It's certainly expensive to have to medevac or airlift those people from their remote villages into Anchorage for treatment. That's the goal here is to prevent the necessity of medical treatment by prevention and then I think that allows us to be just more effective in our overall approach of healthcare and public health in Alaska. Alaskan Natives have some of the highest rates of respiratory disease ever documented in the world. And people are concerned and they're curious and want to know why this is happening to them and their communities. And certainly there's a lot of factors that influence this. But, yeah, people are very concerned the air quality and indoor air quality is one of those factors. And they want to learn more about it and they want to try to find ways to mitigate this.

 

This project was really developed in response to community concerns. When we got to the meetings and we'd talk about public health with local residents, this is something they have told us they are interested in. So we developed this project, partnered with the University of Montana, so that we can find out more about air quality in communities and then the next step of that is really taking those results, partnering back up with the communities and the students and designing an intervention to improve air quality in their homes.


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