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Fairbanks area's air provides good research, UAF professor says

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Posted: Wednesday, December 5, 2012 11:44 pm

FAIRBANKS — While Fairbanks’ ongoing air quality woes may be cause for health concerns, they also provide an opportunity for unique world-class research.

That was one of the topics of a presentation University of Alaska Fairbanks Professor Cathy Cahill gave on campus Wednesday night about the science and research of the Interior’s air.

“What we have going on up here is some of the weirdest atmospheric conditions in the world,” she said. “We have some of the best air in the country, and we have some of the worst air in the country.”

During the hour-long presentation, Cahill, an atmospheric scientist, described the slew of emerging research on Alaska-specific air pollution issues and on air pollution in general.

Cahill said Alaska naturally has some of the best air quality in the world. Fairbanks’ background air pollution is among the best in the country, even considering wildfires.

That’s why, she said, Denali is often a feature on the distant horizon when a comparable sight would never have been seen with the air pollution in the Lower 48.

“That was the good part in terms of the story,” she said. “This is the bad part of the story.”

In Fairbanks, economic issues have driven more people to start burning wood, which combined with particularly strong inversion conditions creates air quality conditions that can be as much as a hundred times worse than the pristine background air quality.

While that poses a risk for old, young and medically at-risk residents, it also has proved to be a source of interesting research, she said.

There’s ongoing research looking into the impact air conditions have on sled dogs, and there’s a proposed study to investigate asthma in children.

Fairbanks also has become a target of health-related research into air pollution. An earlier study found a direct correlation between bad air quality days and increased hospital visits.

Additionally, studying the air has given insight into arctic cold fronts. Cahill said some research has found traces of copper, zinc and dust from Russia and Asia that are transferred and trapped inside the arctic air.

She said concentrations of certain kinds of metals smelted in the Russian arctic accurately correlate with Russia’s GDP. The higher the levels, the better the GDP.

“It’s a neat opportunity to study the impact,” she said. “You’ve got these neat opportunities.”

Still, Cahill was serious about the implications extended exposure to air pollution will have on health and said people should take it upon themselves to burn dry, seasoned wood or take other steps to help clean the air.

Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544 or follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.

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