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Local Lighthouse Playing A Role In Tracking Airborne Pollutants

Groton - The two metal cylinders strapped to the railing of the catwalk of the Avery Point Lighthouse Monday are, literally, capturing the wind - or at least tiny traces of it.

The two small devices, fixed to the railing by marine science professors James Edson and Penny Vlahos as 30-knot winds blew across the University of Connecticut campus, are part of a global project backed by the United Nations to collect data on pollutants in the air at 60 sites around the world. The Avery Point site is one of only a handful of sites in North America.

Called passive air samplers, the devices contain cartridges that will collect residues in the air of persistent organic compounds, or POPs - industrial and agricultural chemicals like PCPs and certain pesticides as well as flame retardants and polyfluorinated chemicals such as Teflon.

”Organic compounds are undersampled,” said Vlahos, who specializes in atmospheric and environmental chemistry. “The whole idea is to identify and monitor compounds we are concerned about and identify emerging compounds.”

Some of the compounds that will be tracked, she said, come from pesticides and chemical agents long banned or out of use, but lingering in the atmosphere. Others have been introduced more recently and are still in use.

”We need to keep an eye on these new compounds,” she said.

The project will help to determine how long certain man-made chemicals stay in the atmosphere, whether that's influenced by temperature and other factors, and how the chemicals change over time after they're released.

Put another way, the purpose, she said, is to reveal how chemicals are persisting in the environment, and “which ones are degrading the way they're supposed to.”

During the one-year project, Vlahos will send the cartridges from the two samplers to environmental scientists in Canada who will analyze them, along with the cartridges from the other sites around the world.

The compounds being sampled were chosen, Vlahos said, because of concern among scientists about their possible effects on human and environmental health.

They are considered neurotoxins - harmful to the nervous system - that are dangerous because they can accumulate in humans and other organisms and the environment, she said.

Ultimately, the data from the 60 sampling stations will be used to determine how these compounds should be regulated, Vlahos said. In addition, specific data from the Avery Point samplers will be available in about a year and a half, providing information about the region's air. Vlahos said she plans to make the data available through UConn's Web site.

Edson, whose work combines marine science and physics, is planning a complimentary project to set up a metrological station at Avery Point, and data from both projects could be used together in some future initiative. Vlahos said both projects will provide new opportunities for UConn students to learn about environmental science and its real-world applications, a new area of emphasis at UConn, and help position the university as a global player in the field.

The Avery Point location, she said, is particularly suited to the samplers, because of its coastal location.

”It gives you an idea of what's leaving the land,” she said.
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