Environmental issues in the air at symposium


FARMINGTON – Most classes were canceled or schedules shifted Wednesday for UMF’s annual Symposium Day when students and faculty get to present the results of months of research to other members of the college community.

Regardless of the sunny 70-degree weather, scores of students chose to forgo relaxing outside to hear their peers and professors speak on topics as varied as reading James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” habitat associations of the damselfly in Maine, population growth in India, and the philosophy of warfare.

More than 30 people attended a pair of talks that centered around air pollution in local communities. In the first talk, UMF Assistant Professor of Community Health Kathleen Welch and first-year student James Flanders discussed the results of a preliminary study investigating levels of diesel fuel emissions in downtown Farmington.

After studying traffic patterns and counting the number of trucks passing through Farmington’s major intersections, Flanders said currently about 1,800 trucks drive through town per day. That number could rise to 2,000 when operations at Poland Spring’s proposed bottling plant get under way.

Diesel emissions from those trucks can cause heart attacks, asthma, cancer, and a host of other health problems, Welch said, as well as adding to global warming and other environmental problems. While new laws have been passed limiting emissions in new trucks, trucks made before 2004 are not subject to the state regulations, and many older engines can last up to 30 years, she said. She suggested lobbying town and local government to rebuild a rail system in town and to retrofit older vehicles to cut down on emissions.

First-year students Gwen Tuttle and Greta Atchinson outlined their recent study on the ill effects of emissions from biomass plants burning construction debris. Biomass fuel is made with organic material, including plant material, human waste and animal waste, Tuttle said. While construction debris contains organic materials, it also contains plastic, painted or treated wood, fiberglass insulation, and Sheetrock, Atchinson said. “Corporations (burning biomass fuel) change the definition of biomass to suit their needs,” she said.

Burning construction debris releases toxic chemicals – like mercury, lead, arsenic, nickel and selenium, into the air, Atchinson and Tuttle explained. Breathing those chemicals causes problems from asthma and respiratory irritation, to immune dysfunction, to cancer, heart disease, and compromised nervous systems.

A number of nearby plants burn biomass, the two students said, and the Farmington-area may be affected by a plant burning construction debris from Massachusetts if a GenPower plan to build a plant in Athens goes forward as planned. Emissions from biomass plants can travel up to 60 miles, Tuttle said, and Farmington is well within the 60-mile radius.