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Taking to Seas and Skies to Assess Gulf Coast Air Quality

NOAA LTJG Andrew Ostapenko.

While onboard the NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson, NOAA LTJG Andrew Ostapenko helps collect air samples in the vicinity of the wellhead and on the way to port in Pascagoula, Miss. 

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

In the hours, days and months after the Deepwater Horizon wellhead started gushing oil into the Gulf of Mexico, NOAA scientists began avidly gathering lots of data to answer the biggest questions: Where is the oil going? Where is it safe to fish? How is it impacting marine mammals, birds, turtles and nesting habitats?

NOAA’s Dr. Jim Meagher is concerned with a different, yet equally important question: What is the oil spill doing to the air we breathe?

“We’re very concerned about possible impacts of atmospheric contaminants from the oil spill on human health,” says Meagher, the Air Quality Program manager and deputy director of the Chemical Sciences Division at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo. He is working with scientists from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), University of California – Davis and other partners to investigate.

“Our team is very concerned about the impact of any toxic chemicals on the workers who are involved in the cleanup and if people living on the Gulf Coast are being exposed to contaminated air, which can occur when the wind blows from the spill site toward shore,” he says.

Fumes from the oil itself are not the only problem. Smoke from oil-burning operations and ship exhaust can also affect air quality, not just at the site, but possibly on land, depending on the direction of the winds.

NOAA ENS Joe Carrier.

NOAA ENS Joe Carrier listens to the hissing sound air makes as it enters a sampling container being filled onboard the NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson in the vicinity of the wellhead and on the way to port in Pascagoula, Miss. Once the hissing stops, he knows the container is full and the air trapped inside is ready for analysis.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

Meagher and his colleagues have been collecting air samples by plane and by ship. Recently, the crew of the NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson spent a week collecting samples in the vicinity of the wellhead and on the way to port in Pascagoula, Miss. 

“We collected at least one sample every four hours,” said NOAA Corps Officer, Ens. Joe Carrier, who coordinated air sampling efforts. “Sometimes we collected samples more often — if we were close to the wellhead site, downwind of it, or in visibly oiled water.”

Exactly how do you collect a sample of air? 

“UC-Davis sent us several hundred metal containers that had been cleaned and emptied of air by a vacuum pump,” said Carrier. “To take a sample, you turn a knob to open a valve on the container. Since the pressure inside the container is lower than the pressure outside, air will flow into the container and make a hissing sound. Once the hissing stops, you know the container is full — then you turn the knob to close the valve, trapping the air inside.”

Samples were then shipped to University of California at Irvine to be tested for more than 150 compounds, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, the primary chemical constituents of oil and tar; volatile organic compounds, such as benzene (a chemical found in paints and varnishes); carbon monoxide; and carbon dioxide.

NOAA recently issued results from air samples taken by NOAA’s P3 aircraft, which you can read more about here.

For more information about air sampling in the Gulf of Mexico, visit www.noaa.gov/sciencemissions/bpoilspill.htmlw NOAA logo.