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Public donations provide new instrumentation for air quality research

Environmental public health students will use federally sanctioned air monitors to continue research on air quality around industrial sand mining sites thanks to citizen-based funding efforts coordinated by Dr. Crispin Pierce, an associate professor and director of environmental public health at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. 

The Partisol Dichotomous PM2.5/PM10 particulate air samplers, certified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, will be used to accurately measure the concentrations of particles, including silica, around frac sand facilities. Results will be shared with the public, the Department of Natural Resources, industry professionals and the scientific community. 

"I know of no other regional comprehensive universities employing these or similar instruments," Pierce said. "Along with the use of meteorological stations to assess wind speed and direction, humidity, temperature and precipitation, students will gain acumen in air-quality monitoring, preparing them for jobs with the DNR, EPA and other governmental organizations that protect human health, and private industry where particulate emissions must be controlled."  

Pierce worked through the UW-Eau Claire Watershed Institute for Collaborative Environmental Studies to establish a research fund with the UW-Eau Claire Foundation, which can accept private gifts to support the purchase of the sanctioned air monitors. Pierce raised $65,000, including $10,000 from the Civil Society Institute, an organization "committed to improving society with breakthrough thinking and creative action," and $30,000 from an anonymous donor in honor of two environmental advocates, to purchase two air-quality monitors.  

"Money raised for this funding was truly citizen based," Pierce said. "Two citizen activists concerned about health effects from sand mining and processing in Wisconsin composed a letter asking for contributions. These individuals solicited donations at community meetings and through email from people who wanted answers about potential exposures and health risks." 

Since 2009, Pierce and his students have been monitoring the air quality in the region with a focus on industrial sand mining locations. They have been working independently to study the amount of airborne dust, including silica, in these areas. However, their research to date has been limited due to the monitoring instruments available to them, Pierce said.

"Our initial work with 'direct-reading' instruments was criticized by the DNR because these instruments were not recognized by the EPA for measuring public air quality," Pierce said. "The generous community donations will now support our work to accomplish two important aims. First, it will employ the new EPA-certified air monitors to evaluate health risks in communities where frac sand mining and processing are taking place, and second, we will use the new monitors side-by-side with our direct-reading instruments to validate earlier data."  

Pierce's research on air quality around sand mining facilities has been rewarded with partnerships with the University of Iowa and UW-Stout and recently been accepted for publication by the Journal of Environmental Health. This study will be featured in the November 2015 edition and will present measured PM2.5 levels in Wisconsin and Minnesota indicating potential air quality concerns. 

Students will begin using the new instruments during the spring 2015 semester. This faculty-student collaboration is filling an important data gap in the understanding of particulate air pollution around frac sand mines and processing plants, Pierce said. 

For more information on Dr. Crispin Pierce's research or on the newly acquired instrumentation, contact him at or 715-836-5589. 

Photo caption: UW-Eau Claire students Rachel Bates, St. Maries, Idaho, and Ruijian Liang, Foshan China, work with air-monitoring equipment near a sand mine site outside of Bloomer while conducting research with Dr. Crispin Pierce, associate professor of environmental public health.