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Improving the Air We Breathe

Smit P3160203

Originally appears in the Winter 2012-2013 issue

Tasmania has some of the cleanest air in the world, yet from time to time can have significant air quality problems, especially in and around the major urban centres. Pollutants from vehicle exhaust, smoke from wood stoves, emissions from industry, open fires, evaporation from paints and solvents, aerial spraying of herbicides and pesticides, and many other day-to-day human activities add unwanted gases and particles to the air. In addition to outdoor air quality, air inside homes, offices, factories and vehicles often contains more pollutants than the air outside. Sources of air pollutants inside buildings range from mould spores to organic gases evaporating from paints and furnishings.

We found high school students we worked with generally had little knowledge or understanding of air pollution issues and their potential health impacts. To promote awareness and monitoring of air pollution, we developed an air quality web site for teachers (http://epa.tas.gov.au/epa/air-quality-education-resources) and piloted the activities with both teachers and students. We initiated a series of activities with students to encourage them to:

– focus on issues in their school, home and local environs,

– use simple tools to observe and measure air pollution, and take action to reduce it.

We found there was considerable confusion associated with climate change gases, ozone depleting gases and air pollutants. In classroom discussions most students thought of climate change gases, e.g. CO2, as air pollutants, and were not aware that some everyday products release chemicals into the air resulting in health problems.

The following investigations and activities provide background resources for teachers of 10-16 year-old students which we hope will support understanding of air pollution and its sources so that students can take appropriate action. By raising awareness of the unwanted chemicals and particles in the air they breathe, and their sources, students will be better informed to take greater care to avoid these pollutants and make healthy lifestyle choices.

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Nel Smit is an environmental educator in Tasmania, Australia, and the winner of a National Excellence in Teaching Award (2007) and the Bob Squires National Award for Excellence in Science Teaching (2006). John Todd is an Adjunct Professor at Edith Cowan University in Western Australia. He lectured in environmental studies from 1978 to 2002 at the University of Tasmania and now is the Director of a small consulting firm specialising in air quality and energy efficiency in Tasmania.  Together, they developed the Air Quality Education website for the Environmental Protection Authority in Tasmania, http://epa.tas.gov.au/epa/air-quality-education-resources.  More suggestions for classroom activities are provided on the website.