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NOAA Releases Data Report on Air Quality Measurements Near the Deepwater Horizon/BP Oil Spill Area

Findings are consistent with EPA, OSHA data

July 21, 2010

P-3 flights over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico during June 2010.

P-3 flights over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico during June 2010.

High resolution (Credit: NOAA)

NOAA scientists today released a data report on air quality measurements taken in June in the vicinity of the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill area. The report, available online, summarizes the levels of nearly 100 air pollutants measured with sophisticated air sampling instruments onboard a NOAA WP-3D research aircraft.

Scientists found common air pollutants, such as ozone, nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide, in amounts typical of urban areas in U.S. cities. However, 15 to 70 kilometers downwind from the oil spill, concentrations of certain hydrocarbons were much higher than found in typical polluted air. Particulate matter downwind of the oil slick was comparable to concentrations in moderately polluted urban air, but the particles were almost entirely organic material, as opposed to those typically found in urban particulate matter. Scientists also measured large amounts of black carbon in smoke from a controlled burn of crude oil on the water.

“Data from the NOAA flights are providing an important detailed and independent set of air quality data to assess air quality risks of workers at sea and the public ashore,” said A. R. Ravishankara, director of the Chemical Sciences Division of NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory, who led the science team.

NOAA scientists measured the air pollutants in four areas, including in the immediate vicinity of the spill, downwind from the spill, and along the Mississippi, Alabama and Florida coastlines. They also measured “background” air in an area far from the spill to serve as a control sample. In analyzing the levels of the pollutants, scientists compared them to typical concentrations of a polluted U.S. urban area.

The near-shore measurements, 30 to 40 kilometers from shore, showed pollution concentrations generally lower than those typically found in urban areas. The background air was relatively free of pollution from the oil spill. A summary of the measurements is provided in Tables 1 and 2 of the report.

The air chemistry flights were conducted to support the efforts of the Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Safety and Health Administration to assess air quality for coastal residents and oil spill response workers.

“EPA has been monitoring air quality along the Gulf Coast since the start of this incident to ensure that residents have the best possible information on the air quality, and the data in this report are generally consistent with EPA’s findings,” said Gina McCarthy, EPA’s Assistant Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation. “EPA will continue to work with NOAA, other federal agencies and independent scientists to effectively monitor air quality and to provide residents living along the coast with the best possible information about the air they are breathing.”

“In order to evaluate worker exposure, OSHA has been conducting its own air monitoring in the Gulf, as well as reviewing all additional available data. Our findings are consistent with NOAA’s data,” says Dr. David Michaels, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health. “We will continue to work closely with all other Federal Agencies to monitor the health and safety hazards facing workers involved in the oil spill response.”

The report offers a highly detailed snapshot of the concentrations of hydrocarbons and other organic chemicals, particulate matter, ozone, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, peroxyacetyl nitrate and a host of other air pollutants in the Gulf in early June. Measurements were taken from as low as 60 meters above sea level and up to 1,000 meters above sea level, with most flight tracks being about 150 meters above the Gulf.

In order to conduct the air sampling, NOAA temporarily diverted the WP-3D plane from its planned participation in the CalNex research mission, a multi-agency field study on California climate change and air quality issues. NOAA scientists recognized that the well-instrumented plane could help in meeting the need to understand how the oil spill was affecting air quality.

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