April 7, 2022 | Catawba College

Student Posters

Student authors noted with an asterisk (*) were selected to present a lightning talk at NC BREATHE 2022

Assessing Rural Community Health, Environment, and Cumulative Impacts Due to a Proposed Asphalt Plant in the Anderson Community

*Lindsay Savelli & Amy Kryston, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Greenspace and Mental Health in North Carolina: Better Understanding the Role of Urbanity and Rurality on the Greenspace-mental Health Relationship

*Sophia C Ryan, Appalachian State University

Our research addresses environmental racism perpetuated by the siting of polluting industries in communities of color. The Anderson Community is a predominantly Black community located in Caswell County and is the home of Thomas Day, the lauded and well-respected Black furniture maker. This community has been selected as the proposed site of an asphalt plant. Many residents live within a quarter mile of the proposed facility, and they are concerned that the polluting plant will negatively impact their health, as the community already experiences many health issues which are compounded by COVID-19. Available studies report an association between asphalt plant pollutants and negative health outcomes. Working in a community-based participatory research partnership with the Anderson Community Group and the UNC Environmental Justice Action Research Clinic, we conducted a health assessment to document the health status and environmental quality of this community.

Greenspace benefits mental health, is a low-cost health intervention to mitigate the impacts of high temperatures and encourages physical activity and social cohesion. However, the details of the greenspace-mental health relationship are still evolving due to the lack of universal metrics of greenspace and limited understanding of the complex mediating and moderating factors between greenspace and mental health. Previous research suggests quantity, in addition to quality and accessibility of greenspace are contributing factors to the mental health-greenspace relationship. Yet, little is known of how these metrics alter the relationship for varying individual (e.g., age, gender, race) and community-level factors (e.g., structural racism, urbanity, poverty). This research will address these gaps with the following research questions: (1) Do quantity, quality and accessibility of greenspace affect mental health outcomes in North Carolina? (2) Do these relationships change when accounting for different contextual and compositional factors? I will quantify mental health utilizing a novel dataset of mental health outcomes that provides complete spatiotemporal coverage of (1) mental illness, (2) suicide, (3) depression, (4) anxiety, (5) mood disorders, (6) self harm/suicide ideation and (7) substance abuse across North Carolina. Results are expected to show that a higher quantity of accessible, high-quality greenspace will result in lower mental health related emergency department visits. Spatial Regression and Ordinary Least Squares regression are used initially to identify greenspace mental health relationships. Multilevel models will be used to disentangle the influence of individual and community-level factors. This work will further foundational knowledge on the greenspace mental health relationship.

Does Decarbonizing the Electric Grid Improve Health Equity?

*Qasim Mehdi, Syracuse University

Air Quality Monitoring Networks Across College Campuses

Graham Ellison Siegel, Western Carolina University

Greenspace benefits mental health, is a low-cost health intervention to mitigate the impacts of high temperatures and encourages physical activity and social cohesion. However, the details of the greenspace-mental health relationship are still evolving due to the lack of universal metrics of greenspace and limited understanding of the complex.

Clean air is an essential need for human health, but the burden of unhealthy air is not shared evenly. According to American Lung Association people of color (PoC) are 3 times more likely to breathe more polluted air than white people (2021). This higher exposure to air pollution can lead to asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and cardiovascular disease. In addition to PoC other populations such as low socioeconomic position (SEP), children and 65+ adults are also at risk.

While the need to decarbonize the U.S. electric grid is recognized, the exact policy pathway and its EJ implications are not fully understood. This paper uses air quality data from a clean energy standard policy scenario with zero carbon emissions by 2040 and models the health outcomes by age, race and ethnicity for 2030, 2040 and 2050. Change in generation-mix for the US was forecasted through Integrated Planning Model (IPM). IPM output was inserted in Community Multiscale Air Quality (CMAQ) to model change in air quality (PM 2.5 and Ozone). Lastly, the air quality data was inputted in EPA’s Environmental Benefits Mapping and Analysis Program – Community Edition (BenMAP-CE) to estimate health benefits of decarbonizing the power sector.

To preview the results, we find that non-Hispanic blacks have the largest gain in air quality improvement and health benefits for age groups between 25 – 85. This is followed by non-hispanic whites, particularly for the 85+ age group. Our analysis finds that using race specific mortality rates provide larger gains for PoC. These results highlight that decarbonization improves health equity. Most of these gains are concentrated in metropolitan centers, Eastern Seaborg, Midwest, and Texas. In NC we find the largest benefits in Wake County and Mecklenburg County. These results are produced on county level maps using python and GIS scripts. Moreover, the health benefits associated with decarbonization exceed the cost of decarbonizing the power sector for both US and NC.

Exposure to air pollution has been associated with decreased student health and academic performance (Mohai et al. 2011). Here at Western Carolina University (WCU), air pollution is not regularly monitored despite a student population of over 10,000. Of particular concern is exposure to particulate matter, a primary air pollutant regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. The construction of new buildings, increased concentration of motorized transportation, usage of conventional and electronic cigarettes, and cooking activities in enclosed spaces all provide sources of particulate matter which may have an impact on individuals exposed to it, In fact, prior research presented at RASC in 2020, shows that air pollutant concentrations vary spatially across campus here at WCU. This research initiated the exploration of installing a permanent air quality network on campus to better monitor student and community exposure to particulate matter. This network can be established through the implementation of air quality sensors.

PurpleAir sensors are a logical choice for this network. They are relatively low-cost ($250), measured in real time (once per minute), transmitting that data to an easy-to-read and accessible internet tool. These sensors, which measure particulate matter in the air, are currently being installed in six locations across campus. Two of these locations will be indoors while the remaining four will be placed outside. The data collected by these sensors will be instantly uploaded to the PurpleAir network map for viewing and analysis.

As an illustration of the importance of these sensors, PurpleAir networks at three United States universities were evaluated. The universities with Purple Air networks chosen for this study are the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, the University of Oregon, in Eugene, Oregon, and Georgia Institute of Technology, in Atlanta Georgia. Analysis from these PurpleAir sensors shows that particulate matter concentrations vary significantly over small spatial scales across campuses, leading to variations in exposure. As contributors to the PurpleAir network map, particulate matter data collected from WCU can be directly compared to results found from other sensor networks. The insights from this research elucidate the importance of establishing a similar air quality network here at WCU.

PM2.5 Fluctuations from Prescribed Fires in Nantahala National Forest in 2019

Evan Joseph and Mackenzie Campbell, Western Carolina University

The Lung-Brain Axis in Respiratory Infection

S. Monroe, Duke University

Due to the significance of air quality’s role in public and human health, several agencies and private companies have taken the initiative to monitor fluctuations in air quality in areas across the country by monitoring various air pollutants such as PM2.5. PM2.5 is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and is known to negatively impact health. By monitoring and analyzing fluctuations in these particulate concentrations, health officials can link specific events to changes in air quality and provide guidance to populations in affected areas as to how to mitigate health effects and exposures to these pollutants.  

One significant contributor to air pollution is prescribed or “controlled” burning particularly in managed forests such as by the United States Forest Service (USFS) and the North Carolina Forest Service. While these events are effective in controlling the risk of wildfires and can promote new plant growth, these burns can substantially increase PM2.5 concentrations and impact the local community. 

From this knowledge, we aim to analyze the effects of prescribed burning on air quality to better understand the health risks that nearby communities may be subjected to. Dates, sizes and locations of prescribed burns conducted by the USFS, NC Forest Service, and the Wildlife Resources Commission during the year of 2019 and within the boundaries of the Nantahala National Forest were plotted using ArcGIS. 20 controlled burns ranging in size from 6-2500 acres along with the locations of nearby air quality monitors were plotted together. Local PM2.5 data was downloaded from the PurpleAir network, EPA, and the NC Department of Environmental Quality and will be analyzed using the R coding language to assess the magnitude of smoke impacts and quantify exposures during prescribed burn events.

It’s long been understood that the brain controls our body, but recent attention has gone into researching how our bodies control our brains. Various organ-brain axes, like the lung-brain axis, highlight how interconnected our brains are with the rest of us. As society faces greater respiratory challenges (air pollution, allergies, COVID) it is becoming increasingly important to understand how the lungs influence brain health. 

I research lung-brain connections, and how the immune system is a pathway for these two organs to communicate. It’s well researched that during influenza infection, inflammatory molecules called cytokines circulate throughout the body. These signals can cause brain inflammation, impairing cognition. In addition to the defined circulating cytokines, there may be other means of communication. The vagus nerve connects the brain to many of our organs, influencing everything from heart rate breathing. It is a faster means of communication than cytokines, and we know that it taps directly into the lung. 

The question remains: during respiratory infection, can the vagus nerve send immune information from the lung to the brain? My research examines this in mice using neuroscience tools. This poster will explain the background and relevance of my research, and walk through neuroscience tools and experiments for a broad audience. It concentrates on explaining the “anatomy” of the lung-brain axis, the relevance of lung health to brain health, and the reasons our air quality can impact life outcomes. These research concepts have particular relevance to vulnerable populations which are more likely to have less access to quality healthcare and higher exposure to air pollutants.

Indoor Air Quality and Sleep

Philip Zendels, University of North Carolina at Charlotte

On-site Sanitation in North Carolina: Challenges Associated with Inequity and Climate Change

Amy Kryston, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Sleep is an important behavior that promotes positive health and cognitive outcomes in life. As many as one in five American adults is diagnosed with a sleep disorder that worsens the quality of their sleep, with Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) being one of the most common. OSA is a sleep disorder where an individual wakes up, has trouble sleeping, or has worse quality sleep due to problems in breathing adequate air throughout the night. The sleep environment individuals rest in is important as well, with good sleep hygiene environment conditions (such as a dark, cool, quiet room) promoting better sleep outcomes. Beyond temperature and humidity, few other air quality parameters have been used in researching sleep quality, despite evidence showing the importance of breathing in sleep for patients diagnosed with OSA and related disorders. This study investigated the impact of Carbon Dioxide (CO2; in parts per million) and Particulate Matter (molecule count per deciliter) on sleep efficiency. 61 healthy young adult individuals participated in this study for a minimum of three nights each, using devices to objectively measure air quality and sleep as well as taking a survey each morning to provide subjective measures and take a brief cognitive battery. This data was analyzed from the third night of the study. Living in an apartment as opposed to a home and high temperatures negatively impacted objective sleep efficiency. For both measures of subjective sleep quality, high CO2 significantly worsened perceived sleep quality. These results emphasize the importance of having clean air both indoors and outdoors to promote health. Past research has found worse air quality is more prominent in neighborhoods of lower socioeconomic status. All individuals, regardless of diagnoses of sleep disorder, benefit from being able to breathe clean air during their sleep.

The potential health risks of poorly-managed septic tanks and on-site sanitation methods are well-documented, as are the racist practices that prevent municipalities from expanding centralized sewerage or incorporating rural areas. However, the direct impacts of decentralized sanitation in North Carolina remain obscured. This will be of particular importance as climate change exacerbates the risk of flooding and overflowing septic tanks in the southern United States. The University of North Carolina Environmental Justice Action Research Clinic intends to investigate the spatial association between septic tanks and relevant health outcomes and specifically enteric pathogens, throughout rural eastern NC, expanding as time permits. We will quantitatively assess the spatial patterns of septic tank density and available health data to better illustrate the on-going impacts of decentralized sanitation in NC. To ensure community-oriented results and fully collaborative policy recommendations, we will work with community partners, and specifically septic tank users and key local and state decision-makers, utilizing qualitative methods to understand determinants of septic tank reliance and the environmental justice needs of communities with on-site sanitation. Current results illustrate limited county-level septic tank information (including number of applications and malfunction investigations) in recent years, but much more work must be done to explore spatial trends of on-site sanitation. Presented work will include summary maps and a review of available literature of on-site sanitation use in North Carolina and the United States more broadly, speaking particularly to the inequities in on-site sanitation reliance and usage. This will be completed with an emphasis on current gaps in research and policy to stimulate conversation and form partnerships with others interested in on-site sanitation.

Combating the Negative Effects of Air Pollution through Nutrition

Alejo Bzurovski and Nico Scharinger, Catawba College

Air pollution has become a growing problem since the industrial revolution in nearly all parts of the world. While it’s nearly impossible to solve the problem itself, there are certainly things we can do to protect ourselves from the harms of air pollution. Good nutrition can play a vital role in fighting the impact of the harmful effects of air pollutants in the body. Free radicals are introduced unnaturally by environmental sources like cigarette smoke, UV-radiation, and air pollution, but are also naturally formed by stress, exercise, and food conversion. These free radicals cause oxidative stress, inherently leading to cell damage. Antioxidants are chemical properties that prevent or delay oxidation in the cells of the body. Their main function is to counteract the impact of free radicals, inhibiting unnecessary cell damage. Antioxidants come in two different forms: food or synthetic supplements. Since it is impossible to escape the exposure of air pollution, some protection can be offered through the intake of foods high in antioxidants. Examples of foods high in antioxidants include cranberries, raspberries, blueberries, sunflower seeds, broccoli, kale, coffee, dark chocolate, and red wine. Increasing intake of antioxidants can abate the damage of oxidative stress due to air pollution, mechanistically destroying free radicals by decreasing their reactivity and thereby protecting healthy cells. Adequate antioxidant intake from natural sources mitigate the effects of air pollution on our health.