Airport not a health danger, DOH says

Report to be aired Thursday night at Pilgrim Senior Center

Warwick Beacon ·

A report outlining the status of air pollution produced by T.F. Green Airport recommends the airport move two of its monitoring apparatus in order to better gauge the degree of pollutants airport neighbors, including children playing at the nearby ball fields, are being exposed to.

The airport – operated by the Rhode Island Airport Corporation (RIAC) – has been monitoring for pollutants caused by its activities, as required by state law, since 2008. There have been multiple adjustments to this requirement over the years. As of a 2017 amendment, the airport is now only required to monitor so-called “ultrafine particles” (UFP) and black carbon (which is an indicator of the presence of jet fuel and diesel exhaust) from multiple monitoring sites around the airport.

The report, dated Oct. 2, 2018, cites the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which suggests “there is suggestive but limited evidence that short-term UFP exposures are linked to respiratory and cardiovascular health effects.” A California EPA study in 2015 demonstrated “long-term exposure to UFPs contributes to heart disease mortality.”

However, according to Joseph Wendelken, public affairs officer for the Department of Health, despite these studies indicating the possible harm of particles produced by airport activities, there is currently no cause for concern to the people living around T.F. Green.

“There are no data that suggest that T. F. Green is affecting the health of people who live near the airport,” Wendelken said in an email on Monday. “The report recommends the gathering of slightly different data, as opposed to just ‘more data.’”

Continuous monitoring stations – which record pollutant levels every minute – are placed at four locations south, north, west and east of the airport. However, some of these monitoring sites have since been moved from their original location to gain more accurate readings that take things like wind direction and velocity into consideration – since wind can disperse particles and throw off readings.

In June 2015, the monitor located to the east of the airport that was placed on Pembroke Avenue was relocated to Rowe Avenue near the relocated Winslow Park – which was moved to accommodate the airport’s new runway. The 2017 amendment made specific mention of the importance of monitoring the location near the park, due to the presence of kids playing sports at the park.

However, the state Department of Health requested in January of 2018 that the airport relocate that same monitor, as it is currently placed at a significant distance from the runway, which the report says likely “underestimates the ultrafine particulate exposure for children who play at the park.”

The DOH also requested the airport move the monitor located near the Warwick Fire Station #8 on Post Road to a site near the end of the new extended runway (they suggest near Main Avenue or along Warwick Industrial Drive), as the fire station monitor was not producing satisfactory data and could be compromised from the high amount of vehicular traffic that travels Post Road, per the report.

Although RIAC submitted a draft of a revised work plan for the pollutant monitoring in March of 2018, according to the DOH report, “As of September 21, 2018, monitoring at the new sites has not begun, and the black carbon data remains compromised.”

However, since the report has been filed and publicly released, Wendelken said that black carbon monitoring has commenced as recommended at the airport.

“Black carbon is now being monitored at the airport,” he said. “There were some challenges with instrumentation earlier on, but the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH)’s State Health Laboratories were able to help address those issues.”

Why black carbon data was being “compromised” is not delved into in great detail in the report, but it indicates that monitoring black carbon is a “very sensitive” process, and that the monitors can be influenced by something as innocuous as the cycling on and off of air conditioner systems used within the monitoring stations.

What impacts readings

The report gets into detail as to how wind direction, wind velocity and temperature all affect the amount of UFPs in the air on any given day. It also describes how particle counts may be influenced on any given day by things like airport snow removal machinery, especially if they are operating near a monitoring facility. As a result, there is a wide range of data that contains numerous variables, and drawing conclusions is somewhat difficult, but manageable, according to the report conclusion.

The report concludes that three of the monitoring sites “see increased [particle count] levels due to the presence of the airport” and urges RIAC to “work with DEM and RIDOH’s Air Pollution Laboratory to obtain accurate data on the levels of [black carbon] associated with the airport.” It concludes that more flights equates to a higher particle count at two of three monitoring sites, with the third likely being thrown off by the aforementioned weather influences.

As the Permanent Air Quality Monitoring Act ironically sunsets in July of 2019, the DOH recommends that the act be extended for another year so that RIAC can properly monitor UFPs and black carbon for an additional year to see “usable” data from the monitoring sites not currently collecting usable data. This would be the responsibility of members of the general assembly.

Two legislative leaders from Warwick – Michael McCaffrey, the Majority Leader for the Senate, and Joseph McNamara, the chair of the House Health and Wellness Committee – are attempting to bring the information contained in the report, and information gathered since, to the public for better understanding. A meeting will take place on Thursday from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the Pilgrim Senior Center to discuss the issue.

“This law was first passed in order to monitor the air quality around T.F. Green Airport,” said McNamara in a press release advertising the meeting. “The citizens of Warwick have a right to know how air quality is being affected by jet engines taking off and landing at T.F. Green Airport. This report, which includes data since the air monitoring sites were moved to better indicate the air quality at Winslow Park, will be of great use to the people of Warwick who live and play near the airport.”

“Since jet engines can have a particularly adverse effect on young children, it was imperative that we test the quality of the air at the park that runs adjacent to the runway,” said McCaffrey in the release. “I look forward to sharing the conclusions and recommendations of the Department of Health with the people of Warwick.”

Not all are satisfied with how the air quality monitoring has been handled by elected officials and the airport. Jan Pangman, who lives on Rowe Avenue less than 100 feet from the ball fields, said that she was disappointed to learn that the monitoring site was proposed to be moved away from her neighborhood, as the possible health effects to her and her neighbors was of importance to her.

“I fought tooth and nail to have it put next to my house to protect the neighbors in my neighborhood,” she said.

Pangman was also upset that the meeting to discuss the report was not advertised with much time ahead of time. The original release sent to the Beacon was received on the morning of Thursday, Feb. 21, just a week ahead of the meeting. The DOH report was not included and no means of accessing it was provided through that release.

“Our elected officials, who are supposed to be so concerned for us, couldn't even put out a notice two or three weeks in advance so that people could be informed there's going to be an informational meeting,” she said. “How are people supposed to be informed?”

Asked for comments on the issue of air monitoring, RIAC spokesperson Bill Fischer kept it brief.

“We look forward to RIDOH’s presentation and conclusions on the 28th,” he said in an email.