Trichloroethylene (TCE), an industrial solvent, is classified as an animal, and possibly a human, carcinogen. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Georgia produces more TCE air pollution than all but seven other states, at about 231,000 pounds a year.
That fact could be alarming on its own. Now consider that an Athens factory produces nearly half of Georgia's total. Also consider that the factory is less than one forth of a mile away from W.R. Coile Middle School and neighborhoods.
Enter UGA's Jeff Fisher, head of the Department of Environmental Health Science and director of the Interdisciplinary Toxicology Program, and a handful of students in the departments of environmental health science and health promotion and behavior in the College of Public Health.
While county health district workers sampled air around the middle school last year, their equipment wasn't sensitive enough to get an accurate picture of how much TCE might be in the air. However, the UGA students - undergraduate Christine Kendrick, and graduate students Sheppard Martin, Adrienne Gallo, Margarita Ortiz-Serrano and Brandon Simmons - were able to measure TCE in parts per billion.
Last spring, after taking part in a community advisory board, the students took air samples at locations near the factory, at private homes, a business and the middle school. Back at the lab, they found good news - that while the TCE levels were detectable, the average level was under 1 microgram of TCE per cubic meter of air. The suggested federal limit - which is being reviewed now and may change - is 5 micrograms per cubic meter.
"This project illustrates how a college of public health should serve its community," said Simmons.
For the students, it was a successful foray into using their skills to help their community.
The experience "allowed me to step out of the classroom setting and conduct research on a public health issue that I had become quite interested in," said Martin.
"It was a good experience that allowed us to become involved in a real-life situation, and to contribute information towards a solution to community concerns," said Kendrick.
"It was interesting to see how community members reacted to the information provided by the project," said Gallo. "Some were worried, some were skeptical of the conclusions provided, and some just wanted to know if they were safe - but most of the people we spoke with were pleased that the university had become involved in this issue, and were willing to investigate the concerns voiced by members of the community."
The project has been left open-ended, said Fisher. At the moment, Gallo is creating a community survey to determine area citizens' environmental concerns, which will be her capstone project for her masters in public health degree. And depending on the outcome of the survey, Fisher said that a community focus group may form to seek solutions.
"My goal was to have the students experience the real world complexities of public health decisions," said Fisher. "The students did an incredible job."