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Childs Park air quality study finds pollutants ‘exceeded’ thresholds

More studying will be done. The Environmental Protection Agency may loan a new sensor to the county to help.
 
(From left) Jabaar Edmond, Antwaun Wells and Gennaro Saliceto gather around Brother John Muhammad as he registers a new PurpleAir monitor with the assistance of Yonghong Lou (right) outside The Gospel Ministries on Thursday, June 9, 2022 in St. Petersburg. The church is the site of a newly installed air quality monitor that will be used to identify what particles make up a mysterious odor frequently smelled in the Childs Park neighborhood.
(From left) Jabaar Edmond, Antwaun Wells and Gennaro Saliceto gather around Brother John Muhammad as he registers a new PurpleAir monitor with the assistance of Yonghong Lou (right) outside The Gospel Ministries on Thursday, June 9, 2022 in St. Petersburg. The church is the site of a newly installed air quality monitor that will be used to identify what particles make up a mysterious odor frequently smelled in the Childs Park neighborhood. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]
Published Oct. 17, 2023|Updated Oct. 22, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG — In addition to a repeated, unpleasant odor cited by residents, researchers say measured levels of chemicals in the air in the Childs Park neighborhood “indicate possible concern” for potential health effects after long-term exposure.

These preliminary results validated concerns from the predominantly Black and low-income neighborhood that have persisted for decades. A grassroots campaign to document instances of the smell began in coordination with the city of St. Petersburg and university researchers. A year and a half later, the findings provide a baseline to allow those researchers to narrow their scope of work.

Researchers from the University of South Florida and Eckerd College presented their preliminary findings at a neighborhood meeting Wednesday. Both groups have been conducting studies since September 2022 to pinpoint what is in the air and gather clues to find the source of the smell.

Those findings have been shared with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which may loan a new sensor to Pinellas County to help with that work. Researchers will also start new rounds of testing this fall and winter to check their work and identify more compounds in the air.

“The community has a reason to be concerned about seeing this addressed and looked at,” said Amy Stuart, a professor of environmental health at USF overseeing the research. “We need to look at this a little further.”

Gennaro Saliceto, a Master of Science student at USF’s College of Public Health, found that average levels of hydrogen sulfide, an odorous and toxic chemical emitted from many industrial processes, such as waste oil and food processing, measured twice as high in Childs Park than in Disston Heights, a neighborhood about 4 miles north that was used as a control group.

Saliceto and a group of researchers took almost 6,000 one-minute measurements by walking with a monitor that measures trace levels in the air in real time. They took four 30-minute walking routes in Childs Park and three routes in Disston Heights. The data found that median measured levels of hydrogen sulfide exceeded minimum odor thresholds and were higher than some benchmarks for health.

Hydrogen sulfide smells sickly sweet, like rotten eggs. Many residents have complained of that smell, along with chemical- or gaslike smells. Long-term exposure to hydrogen sulfide could lead to headaches and sleep apnea.

Saliceto also found that median measured levels for sulfur dioxide also exceeded health benchmarks. However, levels measured in Childs Park were lower than in Disston Heights, possibly due to more truck traffic Disston Heights, researchers noted.

“They’re at a level at which we would expect some people would smell it,” Stuart said. “We haven’t got a smoking gun here in any way, and we don’t know that there is one, but we did find things that corroborate what the community is saying.”

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Pinellas County, which is tasked with handling air quality issues, could be one of the first agencies to use a sensor pod on loan from the Environmental Protection Agency. It detects volatile organic compounds in the air and registers wind speed and direction to investigate where the issue is coming from.

“The type of challenges the folks in Childs Park and Pinellas County are trying to figure out are really difficult issues to get to the bottom of,” said Jake Carpenter, an environmental engineer with the federal agency. “We see this loan program as a new technology that will be helpful.”

Childs Park Neighborhood Association president Jabaar Edmond called the preliminary findings an indication of how much work still needs to be done. He thanked all the residents who reported the smell to the county as part of the Smell Something, Say Something campaign that launched in April 2022.

“With the work that’s being done, we can bring this to a healthy resolution from the neighborhood,” Edmond said. “We just came from generations of nobody saying nothing about it. To have a community voice actually saying, ‘Yeah, I hear you.’ Now to hear it’s already up to the state.”

Tresalynn Morris, a Childs Park resident who helped spread the word about the campaign, said the presentation served as a baseline for the work to come.

“They’re going to be able to tell us if we’re breathing in toxic air,” she said.