Mobile lab checking air quality in Liberty

South Allegheny students tour CMU facility

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Biology II students at South Allegheny High School yesterday got the chance to tour the $2 million Mobile Air Quality Lab that Carnegie Mellon University has had stationed at the campus for the past two weeks to measure air quality.

The university chose Liberty Borough, where the high school and middle school are located, because it is among the areas in the county with the highest particulate levels in the air.

In April, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency selected South Allegheny Middle/High School as one of 62 schools in 22 states where it would monitor the air to examine the impact of industrial pollution. The Clairton Education Center was also on the list.

The EPA chose schools near large industrial plants. South Allegheny Middle/High School is located near the U.S. Steel Clairton Coke Works and not far from the Irvin Works in West Mifflin

The CMU mobile lab, which holds instruments for measuring concentrations of airborne matter, was parked at the middle/high school complex on Nov. 30 and will stay through tomorrow.

The lab is under the direction of CMU Chemical Engineering and Chemistry Professor Neil Donahue and Mechanical Engineering Professor Allen Robinson.

The lab was purchased in 2008, outfitted this year and the exercise at South Allegheny is the first time CMU has used it in the field to measure air quality, said Albert Presto, chemical engineer and laboratory research manager for the CMU mobile lab.

"This is the first field test of sampling real world pollution, where you can park it and watch the air as it goes by," Dr. Presto said.

South Allegheny students were able to see the instruments in the lab and hear about some of the sources of pollution in the area.

Dr. Presto said although the lab has been monitoring air quality around the clock, researchers have not yet interpreted the data. But he said it won't be surprising to find high particulate levels in the air, levels that will likely fluctuate based on whether the wind from the industrial plants was blowing toward or away from the school campus.

Dr. Presto said the Allegheny County Health Department frequently monitors the air near South Allegheny Middle/High School and is taking the samples requested by the EPA.

The CMU mobile lab is performing similar work, but its results will be used for university research.

"We're making similar measurements to what the county does: Particulate matter and ozones and oxides with sulfer and oxides with nitrogen," Dr. Presto said.

CMU researchers will use their data to build models they hope will be able to predict such things as how chemistry transforms particles in the atmosphere and the influence of those particles on global climate.

In addition, Dr. Presto said, CMU is hoping to partner with representatives of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center for a study on the health effects of particulate matter in the air.

Mary Niederberger can be reached at or 412-851-1512.


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