Breathing it in: HHS students work with air quality particles through Gasp

Hoover HS BioBucs planting tree

From the Hoover Sun
22 July 2019

(HHS) - Hoover High School senior Christian Pegouske has always loved being outside in nature. So, he got involved with the BioBucs, HHS’s environment science research competition team. 

Last year, environmental science teacher Janet Ort said, Pegouske and his team were inspired to monitor the air after watching “Toxic City: Birmingham’s Dirty Secret,” a documentary created by Gasp, a local nonprofit for awareness and solutions to air pollution problems in Birmingham. 

“[The documentary] talks about fighting for justice. I show [it] to students to demonstrate how local pollution can be linked to things you wouldn’t consider on first glance, like societal issues, poverty and race,” Ort said. “At about the same time, we read an article called ‘The Polluted Brain’ and it really just looked at pollution with its relationship to brain health.”

For the last two years, Pegouske and his six-person team have been recording and learning about air pollution by partnering with Gasp. 

When the BioBucs presented their findings at the 2018-2019 Southeastern regional Lexus Eco Challenge, they won the competition. At the national competition, they won $17,000 worth in scholarships, split between the team members. Part of it, Ort said, was donated back to the environmental programs at HHS.

“Our big project was on the particle pollution, which was a really interesting and different thing,” Pegouske said. Particle pollution is the solid or liquid droplets in the air, many of which can negatively affect people’s health.

The team worked with Gasp volunteers and measured the particular matter through AirBeam sensors, some of which they made themselves, in conjunction with the AirCasting app. They recorded the particulate matter at Hoover High School, Southern Research STEM Lab and Sloss Furnaces, and then they analyzed the data and what contributing influences the nearby environment might have had on the air. They also shared data on what was safe to breathe and what wasn’t.

“What happens is the little sensors take a sample every minute. They average the pollution count, and then they compare it to a scale as to whether it’s safe or not,” Ort said. “We started using those, and we found out in certain areas the particle pollution was really high, just as you expected, and also if there were trees nearby, those really high counts of pollution were lower, and we started investigating all of that.”

The project, Pegouske said, has taught him much more about pollution than he previously knew, particularly about the value of trees.

“They really have these big benefits,” he said, and BioBucs and working with Gasp has helped him learn how trees can get rid of dangerous particle pollution over time. 

See more from the Hoover Sun