News: Fighting Pollution with Facts

Inexpensive high-tech device documents neighborhood air quality

Apr 12, 2001 at 2:06 pm
Jymi Bolden

Denny Larson of Communities for a Better Environment (left) shows an air-sampling kit that is helping residents gauge the quality of their neighborhoods' air.

What's white, plastic, has a small vacuum and is slightly more accurate than the Environmental Protection Agency? A bucket air sampler — the latest citizen weapon in the fight against air pollution.

This $150 device has helped activists jump-start government action and balance chemical industry claims that airborne chemicals aren't a hazard to neighborhoods. Tests on bucket air samples can detect 120 airborne organic chemicals, from benzene to styrene to hydrogen sulfide. Test results from the buckets lead to millions of dollars in fines, according to Denny Larson, a leader in the California-based Communities for a Better Environment.

The bucket was born in 1995 when residents in Contra Costa County, Calif., tired of waiting for government regulators to do something about industrial air pollution. With funding from a personal-injury lawyer, they created the bucket's prototype.

The U.S. EPA spent $100,000 testing the bucket's accuracy and failed to invalidate it, according to Larson. In fact, the bags do a better job detecting sulfur than the EPA's metal canisters, which tend to absorb some of the sulfur, Larson says. Now the EPA is switching to glass containers.

When combined with residents' health surveys and their personal diaries of odors and physical symptoms, the buckets are an effective way to test a company's claims that its chemical releases pose no health risks.

Larson led a workshop April 5 in Price Hill for representatives of several state and local environmental groups, including the Price Hill-based Environmental Leadership Group, Environmental Community Organization (ECO), based in Wyoming, the Sierra Club and Ohio Citizen Action.

"What we're doing is trying to tip the scales a little bit in a community's direction," Larson says.

Each device is made from a five-gallon plastic bucket, a couple of valves, a hose, a Radio Shack computer keyboard vacuum cleaner and a special $15 Tedlar plastic bag to hold the air sample.

The vacuum removes air surrounding the bag inside the bucket, forcing outside air into the bag through a valve on the bucket's top. A clear plastic porthole lets the tester see if the bag is full. When it is, the tester closes a couple of valves and has a ready-to-mail sample.

More than 20 citizen and environmental groups around the country are using the buckets, Larson says. A bucket air test near a petrochemical plant in Lake Charles, La. in 1999 revealed benzene levels at 200 times the state limit. This led to an EPA inspection that revealed the facility had open containers of benzene, resulting in a $300,000 fine and the installation of better monitoring systems at the plant.

The cost of testing — $300 to $500 per sample — is the major obstacle to wider use of the buckets. Also, the Tedlar bag samples need to be processed quickly — ideally in 24 hours, although 72 hours is all right, Larson says. Otherwise, some of the chemicals begin to react with the bag.

Larson has been using the same California lab — Performance Analytical in Simi Valley — for several years, in part to maintain sample consistency. But there is another reason, too: 95 percent of the labs contacted by Communities for a Better Environment turned them down, for fear the labs would lose lucrative chemical industry business, Larson says.

The buckets aren't a completely new idea in Cincinnati. Two years ago, the city began offering its citizens the chance to test the air for 60 chemicals with similar $540, bag-less metal canisters. So far six of them have been placed with citizens in Northside, Carthage, North Avondale, Pleasant Ridge, Saylor Park and Winton Place. One more is used by a Price Hill elementary school.

Before this program, which was suggested by a Pleasant Ridge activist, a resident's only way to document odors was to call the Cincinnati Department of Environmental Services and wait for someone to come and take air samples. Many times the odor was gone by the time a tester arrived.

"That was one of the reasons why this program was established," says Kathy Clayton, the air quality manager for the Cincinnati Department of Environmental Services. "Unfortunately, the participants haven't taken as many samples as we had hoped."

So far only 10 samples have been taken. Karen Arnett, who used the city's canisters to test the air in Northside, suggests training might encourage more participants to use the devices. The test's cost, $250, might also be prohibitive. But the city budgeted $50,000 for the program this year.

Arnett, a former U.S. Air Force meteorologist, could smell burning plastic from her living room when she moved to Northside in 1998. Her tests near Willard Industries beginning in September 1999 documented the company's unregulated emissions of styrene, a toxic chemical used by Willard in making aluminum auto parts. At low levels, styrene can irritate the eyes, nose, throat and skin. At high levels, it can cause dizziness and damage the liver. Arnett says the Northside levels have ranged from two to more than 20 parts per billion; 30 parts per billion is the maximum regulated level, according to Clayton.

In January, the Ohio EPA fined Willard $82,000 for the styrene emissions, which began in 1990, but Arnett isn't satisfied. She had considered filing a citizen lawsuit through the EPA, but the fine announcement came on the 59th day of a mandatory 60-day negotiation period that must pass before a lawsuit can be filed.

The number of tests ECO and others conduct will depend largely on fundraising, according to Arnett. ECO is hiring a staff member to work on financial support. For now, Communities for a Better Environment has provided a bucket and a couple of tests to get the local groups started.

Local environmentalists have already used the plastic buckets to test Lower Price Hill. Last week, Larson and local environmentalists tested the air in Reading near Morton International Inc., producers of plastics-related chemicals. Within 10 minutes a plant manager went out to see what they were up to, Larson says. The curious manager even leaned over to Larson and asked him what was in the bucket.

For more information about the bucket brigades, call ECO at 513-761-4003 or visit©

Slinking Away: The 'Strong Mayor' Ducks an Angry Crowd

With an angry crowd filling Cincinnati City Council chambers April 9, demanding answers about another fatal police shooting, Mayor Charlie Luken had other things to do.

Luken left the Law and Public Safety Committee meeting around 4:15 p.m. while about 150 African Americans besieged the committee and police officials (see "A Death Too Far," page 13). Speakers demanded an explanation for the April 7 shooting death of Timothy Thomas, the 15th black man killed by Cincinnati Police since 1995.

When the crowd left City Hall about two hours later, assembling in front of the steps of the building, Luken quickly walked away, going east on Eighth Street and Garfield Avenue.

Asked why he left the meeting, Luken said, "I have a lot of things to do. I came back. Did you know that?"

Luken said a casual observer might not have seen him return to the meeting, because members of the audience kept him from sitting with other city council members.

"Somebody took my seat," he said.

Asked about the meeting, Luken said he could add little to Police Chief Thomas Streicher's limited comments.

"In the instant case, it's an ongoing murder investigation," he said.

Neither police nor the Hamilton County Prosecutor's Office have characterized the case as a murder investigation.

Asked what he can do as mayor in the face of public anger at police, Luken said he doesn't know.

"We've got to figure out a way to stop people from dying," he said. "I don't know how we do that."

Luken is so far the only candidate for the "strong mayor" position that will be on the Cincinnati ballot this fall for the first time.

So where did he go during the tense committee meeting?

"I don't even know," says mayoral aide Brendan Cull. "Sometimes he goes to meetings that aren't on the schedule, if it's family or something. He does sometimes as he pleases. We only schedule for things for the mayor's office."