Public Health, EPA to research toxic emissions

Melanie Todd, Staff writer

The Environmental Protection Agency granted research project proposals for the Mercyhurst Public Health Department and two other universities. Students began work on the project with the new academic school year.
Mercyhurst’s goal, through its Toxic Relase Inventory program, which it will be working on with EPA,  is to better inform communities, manufacturers and government on toxic emissions protection.
The finished product will make the public more aware of toxic release and encourage industries to share their techniques on reducing emission. The data sets and databases created by the students will serve as a case study model for others to use.
“The goal is to make a national model to integrate the data sets,” said Thomas Cook, Ph.D., department chair and assistant professor of Public Health.
Last year, Cook came across a proposal that fit perfectly with the environmental health class curriculum.
“We were already collecting a lot of environmental health data for a class project and we came across the EPA call for proposals,” Cook said.
Together, Cook and the 41 students in the class, mostly junior Public Health majors, wrote a proposal for the project.
“The timing was great. We scrapped the midterm and wrote a proposal,” Cook said.
After watching two webinars and circulating various drafts, the proposal was sent off for review by the EPA. In late May, Cook was notified their proposal was accepted.
“It is a two-year project, with deliverables every six months and bi-weekly video conferences,” Cook said. Deliverables include reports, database creation and status updates to the EPA.
A team of 20 student volunteers will work on the project. “This is very much a student driven project. I view myself as more of a coach and give guidance from my experience,” Cook said.
Students will have the opportunity to present at local, state and national conferences.
“What we are really trying to do is deliver more than we promised to further the relationship [with EPA],” Cook said.
The information is limited by industries’ self reports to the EPA. “The quality of the data is only as good as it’s reported but there are ways to cross validate the data,” Cook said.
The students are organized into three specialized groups, including project database creation, analytics and partnership, and user experience.
Different university departments are involved in this project including public health, sustainability, intelligence studies and biology.
“It’s cool because it’s not just students from public health helping,” Emilio Amador, a junior Public Health major said.
While the project is just starting out, students are expected to give as much time to the project as they can without hindering their class performance. There is a two hours per week minimum but Cook expects students will surpass that.
“What’s really great is there’s so much student participation,” Jesse Valasek, also a junior Public Health major said.
The information is only helpful to those who have access to it.
“Dr. Cook wants me to translate the whole thing into Spanish by the end. That’s the main point of the project to get the information out there,” Amador said.