School science team wants to share air quality findings | Columns

Columnist’s note: The following is privately done community-member research based on scientific study and is considered opinion.

Most people who subscribe to the Herald Journal meet certain criteria. They are mid-30s or older, well-read, educated, and invested in the community. When one of my readers comes to me with an idea for a column, I take it seriously and often write to that subject.

So when fifth-grader Gavin D. asked me if I would interview him and his team, it surprised me. He’s not exactly the typical Herald subscriber, but he said he had an important message to share.

Gavin is an exemplary student at Thomas Edison Charter School’s north campus. He is part of team Apollo-bots, one of the school’s two extracurricular robotics teams. Along with teammates Jacob C., Ethan P., and my sons Seth and Hunter, the Apollo-bots have done some serious study they think will help people breath easier.

Their message is not just for school kids. It’s for the entire community.

It starts with a robotics competition. Ethan displayed the team’s robot, complete with moving arms and treads.

“For the First LEGO competition, you take a robot that can do assigned missions,” Ethan said. “We program using LEGO Mindstorms block coding to do the missions.”

“In the competition you also have to do a project to help our community,” Jacob said. “This year the First LEGO theme was that everyone should go outside more. Our team identified that air pollution was stopping people from going outside.”

Jacob’s observation is right on in Cache Valley. While wintertime inversions can make the problem worse, the truth is that Cache Valley has a winter pollution problem even on days without inversion. A Department of Air Quality study says we often have some of the worst air quality in the country.

The Apollo-bots started studying air pollutants and didn’t know what the result would be. What they discovered surprised them. According to the sources they studied, as much as 70% of the fine particulate matter which causes health concerns could be attributed to wood-smoke.

That’s something the Apollo-bots deal with at school every day. Their principal checks the air quality index daily. If it’s yellow, kids who have sensitivity to pollution stay indoors for recess and lunch break. Orange or red days, all the kids are asked to stay inside to protect their lungs from pollutants. The Apollo-bots would rather play outside.

So, what can these kids do about air pollution? They say educating the community about their findings can make a difference.

“Burning wood is very bad,” Gavin said. Displaying an infographic the team has been working on for months, Gavin explained that wood burning contributes more pollution to the air than people realize. “One hour of burning wood does the same air pollution as burning 129,000 cigarettes end to end.”

Using several studies, particularly a 2017 study for the Utah Division of Air Quality, the Apollo-bots compared the top causes of pollution. The team noticed that wood-burning stoves contributed significantly. To reduce air pollutants, they suggest switching away from wood-burning stoves.

“One house burning wood for heat for one hour can equal the same amount of air pollution as 90,000 homes that use natural gas for the same time,” Gavin said. “There’s about 43,000 homes in Cache Valley. So if just one house is burning wood, they can pollute more than everybody else combined.”

“Switch to natural gas furnaces and fireplaces,” Jacob suggested. “Those are better and healthier.”

The Utah Department of Air Quality supports the Apollo-bots advice. In fact, the department oversees the wood stove and fireplace conversion assistance program. Households which use wood burning as a primary heating source may qualify for a grant to help them convert their home to natural gas heating. Residents of Cache Valley can currently apply for awards at website.

The Apollo-bots coach, David Huish, is proud of the work the team has done. “The kids learn so much from this program,” Huish said. “It’s more than just programming robots. They learn how important it is to be an active part of the community. Kids don’t have to take a passive role. They can be instruments for change.”

Air pollution is certainly an issue that needs to change. Personally, I’d like to thank Gavin and his team for sharing their thoughts and research. Even if they are younger than the average reader, they’ve proven every member of our community can make a difference. That is an important message.

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