CU-Boulder Team to Assess Air Quality and Respiratory Health Risks Stemming From Gulf Oil Spill

Postdoctoral fellows and graduate students from Professor Mark Hernandez's environmental engineering lab at the University of Colorado at Boulder will travel to the Gulf Coast this week to begin studying the effect of this summer's oil spill on air quality along impacted shores.

The team will collect air and water samples from pristine shorelines as well as coastal state parks where cleanup operations have not yet begun. Faculty and students plan to take additional samples during various phases of the cleanup operations over the next several months.

The multi-seasonal survey is funded by a $168,886 rapid-response grant from the National Science Foundation. The study is using novel toxicology assessment tools that were adapted for air quality monitoring by co-investigators Kevin McCabe and Alina Handorean, postdoctoral fellows who specialize in applying molecular biology to environmental applications.

Researchers will try to determine the extent to which the large volume of hydrocarbons released into the Gulf of Mexico by the spill are becoming aerosolized as they weather, and what potential health risks they may present to cleanup workers.

"A growing body of research suggests that emergency response crews suffer from various respiratory disorders following floods and other large-scale carbon inputs to brackish and freshwater bodies," said Hernandez.

Hernandez and his students collected air and water samples in New Orleans floodwaters in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, but they did not find a significant level of airborne pathogens.

"This study will go much further in that we will not only identify and quantify the microbes present in the air, we will also attempt to determine their potential for negative health effects using model cell cultures in our laboratory," Hernandez said.

The study will be conducted in conjunction with the Division of Natural Sciences and Public Health at Dillard University, with which CU-Boulder has a well-established collaborative relationship in environmental microbiology.

The grant is one of two RAPID grants awarded to CU-Boulder faculty in response to the Gulf oil spill. The other grant, which is being led by professors Karl Linden and Fernando Rosario-Ortiz, focuses on the environmental fate of chemical dispersants that were used in the cleanup operations.

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