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Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Academics & Research

Research aims to improve air quality


A group of students and scientists have been researching alongside NASA to understand air quality and pollution distribution throughout Houston and their affect on residents’ health and lives. | Courtesy of

UH professors and students worked through the month of September to aid an ongoing NASA air quality study that will help reverse pollution in Houston, which is ranked the seventh-most polluted city by ozone levels, according to the American Lung Association.

The research will help scientists better understand pollution distribution and how to interpret and forecast air quality using satellite data and numerical models.

Three UH atmospheric scientists, with assistance from 15 undergraduate and graduate students, researched a design to build better pollution sensors that will be launched aboard satellites. The sensors will help scientists better track pollution movement in the area.

“If we are better able to interpret satellite data, then we can make more accurate air quality analyses and forecasts, and that will have a big impact on human health,” said Barry Lefer, an associate professor in UH’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences who measured the ozone, formaldehyde and other pollutants.

A collection of diverse remote sensing instruments, including two NASA aircraft and five mobile apps with weather balloons, are used to sample areas covering the Houston metropolitan area ranging from Conroe to Galveston. “One of these sampling areas is the Moody Towers residence hall on campus. 

When students were asked what they thought of UH taking part in the air quality study, the responses were encouraging.

Physics graduate student Debtanu De said he hopes the study will help inform people of pollution’s dangers to the skin.

“People should be more informed about the effects your skin can have from long exposure of sunlight,” De said. “This university is a great place to start research and spread information about how it might affect the skin and one’s health.”

Not only has the study improved knowledge of air quality’s impact on health, it has also given the team an opportunity to work with many long-time colleagues at NASA, said atmospheric chemistry professor Robert Talbot, the director of Institute for Climate and Atmospheric Science.

Although many residents were unaware, Moody Towers housed a number of instruments on the roof that measured carbon dioxide, methane and mercury, many of which are stationed there year-round.

“This testing is a huge step forward to cleaning up the air in Houston. It’s amazing that our university is helping advance the green movement,” said media production freshman Miranda Fox, who lives in the Towers. “I’ve grown up just outside of Houston and have always had bad allergies, and I hope that when this testing is complete, they will have ways to not only help people breathe easier, but also make Houston a leader in the global change towards a healthier planet.”

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