OSU researcher to test for pollution at Olympics

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A researcher from Oregon State University will travel to smog-cloaked Beijing this month to monitor the air quality before and during the Olympics and see what impact cleanup efforts have had.

"Hopefully, the research will help the Chinese government to better understand how it can control air quality in large cities," said Staci Simonich, an associate professor of chemistry and toxicology.

China has been taking steps to clean up its sky in preparation for the Olympics. The government announced this month that it has banned about 300,000 high-emission vehicles – about 10 percent of the total in Beijing – from the capital's roads until Sept. 20. It also said high-pollution businesses have been closed or moved, some provinces have been banned from burning straw, and thousands of government vehicles have been parked in the garage.

Simonich, who will be in China from July 19 to Aug. 15, forms part of a team of researchers who have been testing various aspects of the air quality in a project called CAREBEIJING. Led by Peking University, it was launched in 2006 with the mission of formulating a strategy to control air pollution during the games, which run from Aug. 8-24.

While in Beijing, Simonich will devote her attention to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are produced by burning carbon-based materials such as gas, coal and wood. She'll focus on them because she's an expert on that subject and because they're a serious health concern in China given that some cause cancer, she said.

Simonich isn't worried about these hydrocarbons causing cancer in the athletes and visitors because they will be there only for a short time. But other pollutants, like particulate matter and ozone, could cause Beijing's guests to experience temporary respiratory problems, she said.

Standing on a rooftop at Peking University, Simonich will use a pump to suck air into white, rectangular, filters that will trap particles containing hydrocarbons. She'll begin sampling the air around the last week of July. After she leaves, a student from Peking University will conduct the tests during the last week of the games. Simonich will send the filters to her lab at OSU and determine which hydrocarbons are present. She'll also test them on bacteria to see if they cause cancer.

Simonich became involved in CAREBEIJING after inviting two of its participants to speak at OSU. Her visit will be the third time in recent months that OSU researchers have collected air samples in Beijing. Her graduate students gathered air samples in August 2007 and January of this year. Simonich expects to know the results of those tests as well as the ones from August 2008 within a year.

The Chinese government and the U.S. National Science Foundation will fund her trip and research.

Simonich specializes in studying how pollutants travel through the atmosphere. She runs a lab at OSU that identifies and tracks chemicals, like pesticides, that hitch rides along air streams that start in Asia and blow across the Pacific Ocean to mountains in the western United States. She also is a member of a National Academy of Sciences committee that studies pollutants entering and leaving the United States.

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