New Mobile Testing Resource To Provide Advanced Data On Chemical Air Pollutants
Texas A&M University’s new mRAPiD air quality testing van, a collaboration between the Superfund Research Center and School of Public Health, will give researchers and communities the ability to detect hazardous chemical air pollutants in real time, while on location.
mRAPiD, which stands for “mobile Responding to Air Pollution in Disasters,” was developed for use during disaster events where there is a release of airborne pollutants. It will provide immediate, hyperlocal air quality information to potentially exposed populations, including first responders.
The van is equipped with a highly sensitive instrument that allows it to detect a wide range of chemical pollutants and offer real-time results that are linked with the van’s specific location.
The van is funded by a grant through Texas A&M’s Research Development Fund awarded to Natalie Johnson and Thomas McDonald at the School of Public Health, and Dr. Ivan Rusyn, director of the Superfund Center.
“This whole idea really came about after a couple of large-scale disasters, one of which was Hurricane Harvey. There were emissions of benzene, which is a known carcinogen and respiratory irritant, in the Houston area,” Johnson said. “Dr. Ivan Rusyn, Dr. Tommy McDonald and I initiated the grant through A&M to acquire the equipment and van so we would be able to be a statewide resource to respond to similar pollution events following disasters.”
Texas currently has a network of stationary air quality monitors throughout the state, but these typically only measure for solid particles (like dust and smoke) and some gas phase pollutants (like ozone) but not the larger range of volatile air toxics that mRAPiD detects.
These pollutants are mainly composed of hazardous volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are human-made chemicals that are constantly released into the air — through gasoline and diesel emissions, industrial emissions, dry-cleaning, tobacco smoke, and building materials including paints and varnishes — and contribute to a baseline level of VOCs in the atmosphere.
A sudden increase in VOCs following environmental disasters or industrial accidents is of major concern because they can cause a variety of short- and long-term health effects, from eye irritation and nausea to organ damage and cancer.
The mRAPiD van’s use in the field will be conducted by Johnson as well as Toriq Mustapha and Mariana Saitas, trainees in Texas A&M’s Interdisciplinary Toxicology Program.
In addition to disaster response, the van will be used for routine air sampling by the Superfund Research Center to support ongoing research projects and, when requested, exposure assessments for specific communities, which will be led by Garett Sansom of the School of Public Health.
“We’re going to start by doing baseline sampling in the greater Houston and Galveston area because that’s where a lot of the Superfund Center’s ongoing work and community outreach is occurring,” Johnson said. “Unfortunately, it’s not a matter of ‘if’ another hurricane will occur, but when it will occur. We want a good idea of the normal background levels so we can make comparisons following any environmental disasters.”
Johnson, an inhalation toxicologist, will be using the van’s ability to help establish baseline levels of VOCs for a project focused on determining how the chemical pollutants affect children with asthma, the leading chronic disease in childhood.
“I’m really passionate and concerned about asthma and the increased risk for respiratory infections caused by air pollutants,” Johnson said. “We want to make sure that we know what a safe level is so we prevent any extreme infections or risks for development or exacerbation of asthma.
“One of the best ways we can do our toxicity testing is to know what’s happening with the real-world mixtures,” she said. “The idea is that we would go out into communities, collect samples, and come back in our lab and not only test one chemical like benzene that we know contributes to respiratory distress and dysfunction, but we could also look at a range of those real-world mixtures and then do chemical-based screening with lung cells.”
Specific resources in the van include a proton transfer reaction mass spectrometer for analyzing trace gases; metrological equipment to measure wind speed and direction, temperature, and relative humidity; and an on-board GPS system.