Libby High School senior Paige Bothman checks her laser pointer against her palm as she walks up to the podium. The lights dim and her PowerPoint presentation about indoor air quality illuminates the first few rows of a lecture hall at the University of Montana in Missoula.
The seats are filled with Bothman’s peers from across western Montana, all of whom are presenting their research at the 9th annual Air Toxics Under the Big Sky Symposium. Bothman spent months preparing for today, and her work pays off: she would win a second-place award. Her Libby classmates Barak Lapka and Jake Reny would place first.
The Air Toxics Under the Big Sky program is backed largely by a National Institute of Health Science Education Partnership Award, which has brought environmental health sciences into rural Montana classrooms since 2005.
“Essentially what the program does is educate students about air pollution and respiratory health, and at the same time they’re learning the scientific method,” says Tony Ward, the program founder and a professor in UM’s Center for Environmental Health Sciences.
As federal funding for primary and secondary schools diminishes, and enrollment in many rural Montana districts dwindles, programs likes Air Toxics Under the Big Sky help ensure students continue to learn science that’s relevant to their communities.
Nowhere is environmental health education more relevant than in Libby, where decades of asbestos exposure led to an environmental and public health disaster. Though the students there studied other contaminants.
“When you think about air pollution, you really don’t think about indoor air quality,” Ward says. “You think about outside air because that’s where the forest-fire smoke is and…car exhaust.”
But research shows there are much higher levels of pollution inside the home than directly outside. Then consider how much time people spend inside, upwards of 80 percent of the day, Ward estimates.
Bothman really did bring her science project home—and cleaned house. She sampled air particulate matter before, during and after vacuuming, and found that, whether she used a hypoallergenic HEPA filter or not, the vacuuming sometimes kicked up an amount of dust that exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s outdoor standards.
“I can say that people with sensitive respiratory systems should not only stay away during the vacuuming but also long after,” Bothman said a couple of weeks before her presentation on May 21.
Another senior, Elijah Miller, tested carbon monoxide buildup from gas, diesel and propane engines. Like Bothman, he tested not only the amount at a given time, but tried to determine how long it took for carbon monoxide to reach dangerous levels.
None of these studies are conclusive—the class joked about “cause for further study” being a common conclusion—but Libby science teacher Gene Reckin says such hands-on scientific inquiry is critical.
“You got to make science real for kids,” he says.
Reckin wants students to experience the “mental gymnastics” involved in the scientific method—researching a question, developing a hypothesis, collecting data, analyzing it and coming up with explanations for the observed patterns.
The process is hardly ever so neat and linear, though, as senior Haylie DeHaven and junior Cody Barrick discovered.
The two Libby students examined how woodstoves draw in air. The negative air pressure can pull in radon, which the EPA suspects is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers. Outside, radon doesn’t have much effect, though it becomes a problem when trapped in enclosed spaces, such as basements. Even low levels in houses can be harmful.
The radon testing wasn’t the hard part for DeHaven and Barrick; it was getting homeowners to keep a log of their activities.
Earle Adams, one of the program organizers and a research professor in chemistry at UM, says such frustrations actually help students.
“They learn the true scientific process: 95 percent of the time is doesn’t work,” Adams says. “And you keep going back and making it work.”
To him, the most important thing is that students are engaging with science in their communities.
First-place winners Jake Reny and Barak Lapka looked at differences between radon counts—measured by radioactive decay in picocuries per liter (pCi/L)—to see if different soil types emitted more radon. They found a significant statistical difference between houses built in town on the valley floor, atop rocky soils, and houses set higher up on clayey benches.
“We can advise homeowners in town to get their homes tested,” Reny says. “We found two of them up near 70 pCi/L, and that’s after testing for a week.”
The EPA’s acceptable radon level is 4 pCi/L. Their teacher, Reckin, said they got some “panicky phone calls.” However concerning to residents, the experience shows the importance of the students’ work.
“We’re not just collecting data to be collecting data,” Reckin says. “It’s useful.”
The Air Toxics Under the Big Sky organizers say it’s important to identify homes with air quality problems and notify homeowners to help prevent future exposures. They hope to create data sets and maps from information gathered over the past decade.
But the onus to do that work will remain on the air toxics program. At Libby High School, for example, the budget drops with enrollment. Reckin, who’s taught there for 33 years, says his first graduating class had about 240 students. This year it had 80.
“What’s going to happen next year?” he asks. “We’re shrinking big time.”
This is the last year Reckin will have school funding to bring his students to the symposium in Missoula. Next year he plans to rally parents and organize a carpool. The air toxics program can’t pay for travel, but it will continue to provide equipment and training.
“We’re struggling everywhere, so providing equipment is huge for us,” Reckin says.