Photo of three PurpleAir sensors on the roof of Bernard Brommel Hall.

Northeastern students research air pollution, possible connections to COVID-19, ozone plumes

Friday, August 7, 2020

Under the direction of Physics Department Chair Greg Anderson, Earth Science Professor Elisabet Head, Chemistry Department Chair Ken Nicholson, and in collaboration with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 5, four Northeastern Illinois University undergraduate students have begun the arduous task of examining air pollution data to study two separate issues: if areas with higher levels of particulate matter (or PM 2.5) correlate with higher cases or mortality rates of COVID-19 and the occurrence of ozone plumes.

The research, which began this summer, is facilitated by the Student Center for Science Engagement (SCSE), a Northeastern resource that offers students research opportunities to not only expand their resumes, but also examine various critical issues in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). 

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution represents the single biggest environmental risk to human health. Worldwide air pollution accounts for 39 percent of all deaths and disease from lung cancer, 24 percent of all deaths from stroke, and 43 percent of all deaths and disease from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

“The American Lung Association ranked Chicago as the 18th-most ozone-polluted city in the nation, and the 19th-most polluted for year-round particle pollution,” Anderson said. “The NEIU-EPA research collaboration informs the practice of environmental justice because while affluent communities receive most of the benefits of the activities that contribute to air pollution, underserved areas disproportionately bear most of the negative effects.”

The EPA was scheduled to deliver high-end air quality sensors to Northeastern to aid in data collection prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although those sensors have not yet been delivered, Northeastern was able to install some of its own PurpleAir sensors on the roof of Bernard Brommel Hall this summer. These sensors have begun collecting data, which will be helpful for future studies.

“Later stages of this project will involve sensor loans from the EPA, co-locating sensors with regulatory monitors, and a study of the use of inexpensive air sensors to study air quality,” Anderson said. “The study, monitoring and regulation of atmospheric pollutants has led to dramatic improvements in air quality over the past few decades, but further progress is still needed.”

Even without the current data from the PurpleAir sensors, the students were able to use data from the Illinois EPA and other published research to explore the impact of air pollution. 

Computer Science major Samran Mirza and Mathematics major Eric Friedman have been exploring possible correlations between COVID-19 and air pollution. They are concentrating on available data in Illinois counties and data and coding published in a nationwide study by Harvard University

“What we have found so far is that in more populated counties there’s a higher correlation with high PM 2.5 exposure and higher COVID-19 mortality rates,” Mirza said. “The group at Harvard did a similar study with all counties in the U.S. and found that there was a correlation between exposure to PM 2.5 and higher COVID-19 mortality rates. So, I decided to research specific Illinois counties and take those counties and compare them to other counties in the U.S. with similar factors to see if there is a higher mortality rate.”

Most of the research they are processing is done through computer coding. 

“We’re using R and I’m using some Python, so it’s mostly data science, and data science is what I’m looking to go into,” Mirza said. “I’ve always liked making sense of numbers and trying to find trends.” 

Friedman, who is working on completing his second bachelor’s degree, said he got involved in a research project because he wants to pursue a Ph.D. 

“We know that COVID-19 affects the respiratory system, and we know that air pollution can impact people’s respiratory systems,” Friedman said. “So I wondered if there were any studies done on this and came across a BBC article that referenced the study from Harvard. I worked with their code for weeks on end to try to understand it and just try to look at air pollution and the number of COVID cases, as opposed to mortality, in a particular area.”    

Friedman was interested in this because early on in the 10-week program, the group was presented with a map that showed the different air pollution rates in Chicago. With that data, the group could see disparities in air quality throughout the city and wondered if there was a connection between areas that have worse air quality than others. 

“While we have a good sense of where things lead because Illinois publishes data and are trusted to publish reliable data on the number of COVID-19 cases in a particular ZIP code throughout the state, unfortunately there’s no good measures or data that we were able to find for the air quality in each specific ZIP code,” Friedman said. “So it would be hard to compare the number of cases with the specific air quality data for a specific ZIP code. We were able to compare it to a specific county, which is what the Harvard study did.”

Anderson noted that currently there aren’t enough sensors throughout the city that measure PM 2.5, which is another reason why having the air sensors at Northeastern are so crucial to future research. In fact, Anderson is hopeful that once the EPA provides the high-quality sensors to Northeastern’s Main Campus, they will eventually be able to add sensors to El Centro and the Jacob H. Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies (CCICS), which would provide much needed data on the air quality levels in Chicago’s Avondale and Bronzeville communities, respectively.

“El Centro and CCICS tend to have higher environmental justice indices, meaning there are more problems there with air pollution and other environmental issues,” Anderson said. “So, we would like to extend monitoring to those locations. It may be difficult because we’d have to find places to put them where they would be safe, like on the roof of BBH, but the data would be so rich and give us concrete evidence of how much work needs to be done and if current measures are working.”  

Gloria Rios, a Biology major and Spanish minor, also thinks having more data to work with would be helpful. Over the 10-week study period, Rios and another student tried to examine how PM 2.5 affected the respiratory systems of people who live near factories and if there was any correlation between those areas and COVID-19. However, she and her project partner could not find enough data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to explore the issue further. After reading about the Lake Michigan Ozone Study, they shifted their topic and explored that issue further.  

“We had four speakers from the EPA join us over Google Meet and present their findings to us,” Rios said. “One presenter was Dr. Donna Kenski. In her slide she had a graph of an ozone plume moving along the Lake Michigan shore. You could really see the peaks of it. That inspired us to find days of the year that showed ozone plumes moving from Chicago to Wisconsin.”

Rios said this type of research is important because some people choose where they live based on what they’re close to, like factories or a lakefront, not realizing that pollutants can travel and potentially be just as harsh in less crowded areas with seemingly fewer factors for air pollution. 

Though all projects are still in a research phase and do not have conclusive data, all the students were thankful to have been part of the project because it gave them valuable research experience. Rios said the project was helpful to her because she’d been wanting to learn more about coding and now feels much more comfortable with R than she did before. 

“It was very hard to learn the R program,” Rios said. “I haven’t really ever coded in my life before. This was basically learning a whole new language for me. I got help from my group mates and I was able to start to make my own graphs using codes from them. They had much more experience in coding, but this was something I learned in the program. That was one of my goals: to learn how to use R Studio because I knew it would help me grow and have another skill in an area I wasn’t used to. Now I’m able to help my group mates sometimes and that feels nice. It’s rewarding.”

Anderson said that he hopes this research can continue and would certainly like to have students receive funding again through SCSE to conduct more air quality research, especially if they can expand the research to Northeastern’s other locations and incorporate the data into classes. 

“I think we would definitely hope to do some of these data studies over the summer and also integrate some of this into our upper-division classes,” Anderson said. “If, or when, we get sensors at the other locations, one of the beautiful things about these monitors is they can be networked so people can connect to the network and study that data from anywhere once the monitors are mounted and configured. It’s great because as we work remotely, we can still be doing current research and collecting data without having to be on campus.”  

Top photo: Three PurpleAir sensors on the roof of Bernard Brommel Hall.