Keene, New Hampshire, a small city in Cheshire country, has been facing an air pollution problem.  Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at Keene State College Dr. Nora Traviss has been studying this problem for years.

Alison Simcox of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) said, “Dr. Traviss was awarded one of our grants a few years ago under our healthy community grants program, and in fact some of her research is being funded under that grant.”

Traviss has been looking at the air pollution patterns in the town of Keene since 2009, when she was approached by the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services (DES) and the city of Keene to be on the committee for a wood stove changeout program.

Traviss said some of her students have been working together to do public outreach on the issue of Keene’s air pollution.

Keene has a hidden hazard with the wood smoke pollution that some people have become aware of because of the outreach over the last five years.

However, Traviss said there is still a lack of awareness, and Keene does not have any regulations that limit individual use of woodstoves.

Since Keene is in a valley, it keeps the pollution close to the ground, Traviss said, “We are sleeping under a blanket of pollution.”

Wood smoke, the smoke that comes out of a woodstove, is the main source of particulate matter pollution in Keene. Traviss described particulate matter as  “stuff we can’t see, but it is really harmful.”

Traviss said 150,000 deaths in the United States can be directly attributed to air pollution. This is eight times the population of the city of Keene.

Traviss identified those most at risk are those who have heart and lung diseases, older adults and young children.

According to Traviss and her students’ data collection through mobile monitoring, they found that West Keene had the highest level of air pollution, a rate that was comparable to the rate in Beijing, China.

In Beijing, most days it is not recommended to do something as simple as ride a bike outside due to the air pollution.

Traviss helped to implement the Wood Stove Change Out program that was open to the whole Cheshire County.

Because of this program, 314 woodstoves were changed out, but only 86 of those were in Keene. Traviss said that taking out the stoves helped, but the number needed to be more than 86.

As of a recent data collection done by Traviss and her students, the local air inversion levels are still pretty high and Traviss said she is hoping to translate science into action in the community.

According to data collected by the census, Cheshire County is the most reliant on wood for home heating in New Hampshire.

First-year Lauren Christie said, “I’m from New Hampshire, so I know that there is fires and people use wood stoves. I have one myself, but I didn’t realize how bad it was, especially in Keene.”

When asked why she attended the presentation, Christie said, “If I am going to be living here for the next four years, I find it to be kind of an important and interesting topic.”

Traviss wants to engage citizens in a science project led by her students to install continuous real-time monitors so they can get a better read on when these air inversions really occur.

Currently, Traviss said she is looking for Keene “citizen scientists” in each neighborhood to participate in installing real-time monitors to help monitor the air inversions, as well as setting up a Facebook page to spread awareness and information on Keene air inversions.

Molly Spooner can be contacted at mspooner@kscequinox.com