When Sto-Rox High School science teacher Joe Krajcovic realized a diesel generator that powered a rooftop wireless tower was exhausting into his classroom, he knew it was a serious problem. He could smell the noxious odor of the diesel fumes on several occasions and grew concerned about potential health impacts to his students and fellow staff.
He was right to worry. Diesel exhaust is a complex mixture of thousands of gases and fine particles that contains dozens of toxic air contaminants, many of which are known or suspected to cause cancer like benzene, arsenic and formaldehyde. It also contains other harmful pollutants, including nitrogen oxides (a component of urban smog). As we breathe, diesel exhaust penetrates deep into the lungs, contributing to myriad immediate and long-term health effects—including lung disease, asthma attacks, cancer and even premature death.
“Having a diesel generator exhausting this close to and into a school building creates unhealthy air and health risks for students, staff and administration and everyone in the building,” Krajcovic said.
The generator also bordered an athletic field, where student athletes take in disproportionately larger volumes of air (and any contaminants it contains) as they breathe more rapidly than usual during practice and games.
The school administration moved Krajcovic’s classroom away from the strong fumes, although no doubt the exhaust dissipated throughout the building. To help demonstrate the risk posed to the school by ongoing use of the diesel generator, Krajcovic then worked with researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab and the Department of Mechanical Engineering to monitor air quality inside his classroom.
He used a low-cost particulate monitor called a Speck developed by the CREATE Lab for citizen science and exposure tracking. The device measures airborne particulates that are 2.5 microns in diameter—approximately 1/30th the average width of a human hair.
Over a period of 10 days in February, particle concentrations in Krajcovic’s classroom ranged between 6,000 and 30,000. In a room with acceptable indoor air quality, the particle count is typically between 50-250 particles.
“These readings were extremely high and presented very big health concerns that put students, staff and administration in the building at risk,” he said.
The highest readings occurred at times when the diesel generator was operating. Conversely, particle counts dropped off at times when the generator was shut down.
Krajcovic filed a grievance through his union, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, and presented his findings to the school board and administration. He then called Tom Hoffman, western Pennsylvania director for Clean Water Action, who talked about the health risks associated with diesel exhaust. A few days after the hearing, Krajcovic was told that his grievance was successful and the generator would be moved.
“This is good news for the students and staff at Sto-Rox High School, and I commend Mr. Krajcovic for taking the necessary steps to protect the health of those in the building, ” Hoffman said. “Every child deserves to breathe clean air at school and every teacher deserves the same in the workplace.”