Chemistry professor talks about Fairbanks' air quality problem

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FAIRBANKS, Alaska - The Science for Alaska Lecture series kicked off Tuesday night with the Science of Smoke, Fairbanks' particulate problem. The lecture touched on contributing factors of air quality around the Interior.

Professor of Chemistry at UAF Bill Simpson started off by explaining the reasons why Fairbanks and North Pole have such high amounts of particulate matter in the air, one being cold weather inversions.

"That type of situation can lead to smoke trapping in the ground like this," said Simpson.

He also said, the more we know about particulates in the air, the more we can improve health and find more progressive ways to solving the problem. The particulate that Simpson mainly spoke about was PM 2.5.

"When you talk about the particles that we are interested in, we call them fine particulate matter. We also call it PM 2.5 because the ones that we are interested in are less than 2.5 micron in diameter," said Simpson.

A human red blood cell is about 5 microns in diameter.

"When you breathe them in, they put chemicals into your lungs and they can cause health effects," he said.

And then he showed what types of home heating sources contribute to the air quality problem.

"Eighty three percent of the heat was coming from oil in downtown Fairbanks. In North Pole, 99705 zip code, there is a higher percentage of wood combustion but still a dominance of oil. Oil is the biggest heat source in both of those areas," said Simpson.

But the majority of the particulate matter comes from the wood burning stoves. Simpson says the best way for homeowners to lower the percentage of particulates in the air is to burn with dry wood and up keep to your stove. Oil burners should consider using number one heating fuel, when it comes to power plant contributions.

"Power plants do contribute less than wood smoke, so it's something that we want to be thinking of, but it's not something that is going to directly solve the problem," said Simpson.

Next week they will explore Alaska climate prospects in a lecture named Some Like It Hot with UAF’s Martin Stuefer. The event starts at 7 p.m. at Raven’s Landing.