DI air quality study reveals slight increase in pollution when odor is present

Levels not considered unhealthy, but residents still have questions

Are there increased pollutants in the air over Daniel Island? Depends on the weather.

That was the big take-away from an air quality study initiated by a group of island residents last summer. The group first expressed concern in March of 2017 about the “rotten egg smell” occasionally detected in the community. They believed the unfavorable scent was emanating from the KapStone Paper and Packaging Corporation across the Cooper River in North Charleston and that it could potentially be harmful to those who inhaled it. Formed by island resident Sara Gail, the group enlisted the help of Dr. John Pearce, assistant professor of Environmental Health at MUSC, to conduct the study.

“As we all know, Daniel Island is located in close proximity, and often times directly downwind, to several local air pollution sources,” stated Pearce. “However, it is not monitored as part of any regulatory monitoring program…and thus air quality data on the island is lacking. Given this, and the concerns expressed by community members regarding air quality, I decided to use the resources available in my MUSC lab to conduct a short exploratory air monitoring campaign on the island.”

In May and June of 2017, Pearce placed air monitors at MUSC Health Stadium on Daniel Island Drive to gauge PM2.5 levels (particulate matter or fine particles in the air that are 2.5 microns or less in width), a strong indicator of overall air quality. During the same time period, he also monitored the air at MUSC downtown and other locations for comparison. While the monitors collected data, Gail tracked the odor, wind speed and direction, and general air quality on Daniel Island through the Environmental Protection Agency’s website. The results? Levels of PM2.5 did go up slightly when the odor was present in the area, which also corresponded with the results from the other monitored sites.

“In the plot, you clearly see strong agreement of data collected by our monitor at MUSC and our monitor on DI when no odor is present,” stated Pearce. “…When the odor was present we found subtle increases in ambient PM2.5 on DI and at MUSC, with a marginal increase on DI. I should note that our data reflect fine particles (e.g. dust) in the atmosphere, not concentrations of the gases most likely contributing to the odor.”

“The pollution did go up when it was floating this way,” added Gail. “Was it every day? No. When the winds were north and northwest, it’s blowing this way. If you smell the sulfur, check the wind direction. The winds are sometimes in our favor.”

Pearce noted the findings should not be interpreted as a definitive study of air quality on Daniel Island, as they would not be sufficient for an environmental impact assessment or a scientific publication.

“An interesting aspect of this campaign is that we were able to pair data collected on Daniel Island (MUSC Health Stadium) with self-reported observations of ‘odor episodes’ on the island,” he said. “It is very important to note that these data are quite limited as our monitoring campaign was relatively short and odor observations were only collected by a single individual, so it is difficult to draw any real conclusions. That said, I find the results to be quite interesting as they reveal that ‘odor episodes’ are accompanied with increases in particulate matter – a pattern that suggests meteorology is playing a strong role here.”

Gail, island resident Cortney Wood and other members of the group met with representatives of KapStone last fall to discuss the results. They were joined by Andy Hollis, a data analyst with the Coastal Conservation League.

“It did not indicate unhealthy air,” said Hollis, of the study’s conclusions. “It was ok, but demonstrated the odor issue caused by TRS emissions (Total Reduced Sulfate) is exacerbated by meteorological conditions, atmospheric inversions and wind patterns. Since the plant is in compliance with state and federal regulations, maybe process modifications could be made during times when atmospheric conditions are not favorable.”

Hollis also believes that TRS emissions regulations are “very old and should be updated to incorporate technology improvements.”

Gail said the meeting with KapStone representatives went well and that they were very helpful in explaining the plant’s processes. The Daniel Island News attempted to contact KapStone for a comment on the study’s findings, but did not hear back from company representatives by press time. According to their website, the company is in “100% compliance with all environmental laws and regulations” wherever they do business.

“This is achieved by identifying, understanding and giving priority consideration to the environmental aspects and impacts of KapStone’s activities, products, and services while integrating continual environmental improvement and employee diligence into daily operations,” continued the website.

Based on information posted on the Environmental Protection Agency’s website, air quality when PM2.5 levels are under 12 is considered “good” with “little to no risk” to health. In Pearce’s study, local levels were well under 10. Gail was reassured by the results, but would like to know more.

“I still have questions,” she added. “I still don’t know if I am being told everything, honestly. The emissions of the factories, they are available to the public – sometimes six months to a year after...I’d like to know in real-time what these emissions are and those can’t be provided to the public – and that seems very questionable to me.”

Air pollution presents a complex mixture that is difficult to measure, explained Pearce, as ambient air pollution can consist of hundreds of components. For example, he said, diesel exhaust consists of more than 50 components (such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter, benzene, polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, etc.). Pearce was unable to examine specific chemical compounds in the air while conducting last year’s study, because he didn’t have the necessary equipment to conduct that type of research.

“Measuring chemical compounds in the atmosphere is complicated and expensive,” added Pearce. “However, this is something we would like to do in the future.”

“Basically, KapStone seems to be under compliance, but who is to say these levels are safe?” said Gail. “Is it a nuisance? Is it a quality of life issue? Or is it poisoning us? We still don’t know because we don’t have the equipment.”

Both Pearce and Hollis agree that a beneficial next step would be to measure specific pollutants commonly associated with paper mill production.

“The reported numbers are lower than the state average…and far lower than what we might see in Beijing (>100 ug/m3) and lower still than Los Angeles (12.5 ug/m3),” added Pearce. “However, in the field of environmental health we generally believe that any exposure to air pollution can be harmful as even small differences have been shown to be important.”

Gail and other group members also encouraged residents concerned about air quality to contact state and U.S. representatives, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham, Sen. Tim Scott, and Rep. Mark Sanford. To check current air quality levels, visit the EPA’s monitoring website at www.airnow.gov and enter your zip code for results specific to your area.

Daniel Island Publishing

225 Seven Farms Drive
Unit 108
Daniel Island, SC 29492 

Office Number: 843-856-1999
Fax Number: 843-856-8555


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