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CSU Scientists Study Toxic Impact of High Park Fire on Air Quality

Grace Hood

Air pollution in Fort Collins during the 2012 High Park Fire rivaled some of the worst days in places like Mexico City or Los Angeles—well known for poor air quality.

That’s one of the key findings of a recently published study conducted by two Colorado State University scientists in the journal, Environmental and Science Technology.

One striking difference came from comparing air quality samples taken before and during the High Park Fire. Study co-author and CSU professor of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences John Volckens says his findings back up suggestions from public health officials, who warned people last June to avoid going outdoors.

“It turns out that forest fire smoke is pretty potent stuff,” he said. “It can cause your eyes to become itchy, your throat to become scratchy. It’s best to stay out of the path of the smoke, to stay indoors when it will be worse.”

Credit Colorado State University
Researchers used a microfluidic paper-based analytical device (μPAD) for measuring air quality during the High Park Fire.

Volckens and other researchers looked at a new type of air pollution measurement called “oxidative stress.” Measurements were taken by small paper devices attached to test subjects—new tools developed specifically for the study.

Study co-author Chuck Henry, who is a professor of chemistry at CSU, described how the device works in a CSU press release:

It lives on your shoulder, it’s tiny and it breathes the same air you’re breathing, so at the end of the day, if you were outside more often on a bad fire day, you’d have more oxidative intake.

Henry and Volckens plan to use the paper device for future research on air quality. The next step is to create a network of “citizen scientists” who could employ the devices and create a map of air pollution levels around Fort Collins.

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