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EPA awards $3.65 million to UT Austin, consortium of universities to examine air quality in Houston

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today awarded $3.65 million to a consortium of universities led by The University of Texas at Austin to examine air quality in Houston. Houston recently surpassed Los Angeles as the city with the worst ozone concentrations in the United States and has been designated one of six particulate matter “supersites” by the EPA.

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AUSTIN, Texas—The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today awarded $3.65 million to a consortium of universities led by The University of Texas at Austin to examine air quality in Houston. Houston recently surpassed Los Angeles as the city with the worst ozone concentrations in the United States and has been designated one of six particulate matter “supersites” by the EPA.

Houston will be the focus of Dr. David Allen’s Gulf Coast Aerosol Research and Characterization Program. Allen, the Henry Beckman Professor in Chemical Engineering at UT Austin for the past four years, is the director of UT Austin’s Center for Energy and Environmental Research. Allen, the former chair of the department of chemical engineering at the University of California Los Angeles, is working with co-principal investigator Dr. Matthew Fraser, assistant professor of environmental science and engineering at Rice University.

The new 16-month EPA study will provide detailed documentation on Houston’s particulate matter — the visible part of air pollution — and how it travels across large regions, as well as how it affects health. Airborne particulate matter includes a broad class of solid particles and liquid droplets of varying composition that remain in the atmosphere for long periods. The particles can contain acids, heavy metals, biological material, soot and a wide variety of additional chemicals. Recent studies have found strong associations between airborne particulate matter and negative human health effects, including

  • premature death
  • worsening of asthma
  • worsening of other respiratory diseases
  • decreased lung function.

The EPA-funded study is part of a $10 million initiative called the Texas Air Quality Study (TexAQS — 2000). The goal of the study is to identify particulate matter and ozone levels, determine air pollution sources and assess how the pollution travels. The research should be completed by the year 2003.

Allen explained that comprehensive air quality studies are needed in Texas because the state is in the process of defining regional approaches to air quality and developing new regulations.

“These studies will provide a sound scientific basis for the state’s air quality management decisions,” Allen said. “It is estimated that approximately 2.5 million people in the Houston area live with potentially unhealthy concentrations of particulate matter. The unique collection of emission sources and the complex coastal meteorology have made understanding what causes these exposures a challenge.”

The team led by UT Austin will conduct an intensive sampling program beginning next June at three core sites and 20 peripheral sites around Houston. Researchers will characterize the types, size, sources and spatial extent of particulate matter air pollution, how it changes from season to season, how it is affected by weather patterns and how it is related to human health.

The team will include researchers from Rice University, Texas A&M University, Texas Tech University, Clarkson University of Potsdam, N.Y., the University of Delaware, the Georgia Institute of Technology and Aerosol Dynamics, Inc., of Berkeley, Calif. The city of Houston, Office of the Mayor; the Houston Regional Monitoring Network; the Mickey Leland National Urban Air Toxics Research Center; the UT Health Science Center at Houston; Brookhaven National Laboratory; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; the Department of Energy; the Texas Hazardous Substance Research Center; the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission; the Southern California Center for Airborne Particulate Matter; and the Southern Oxidants Study are collaborating in the research.

For more information, contact Becky Rische, College of Engineering (512) 471-7272 or Dr. David Allen, director of UT Austin’s Center for Energy and Environmental Research, (512) 475-7842 (available for interviews after 2 p.m. Wednesday). Photos are available at http://www.engr.utexas.edu/comm/news.html.