Particulate matter holds special interest for atmospheric chemist Graydon Snider, who is not only a Dalhousie University postdoctoral fellow but a competitive long-distance runner. 

Last summer, Dalhousie University’s Graydon Snider was on the roof of a half-built office building in Bangladesh setting up a nephelometer — an air sampler device — to measure the concentration of suspended particulates in the thick, grimy air. The only space available for the instrument, which Snider brought to Bangladesh from Canada, was this roughed-in roof where building construction had stopped — most likely permanently. Once Snider returned home, Bangladeshi technicians would only need to download the air-quality data from a simple SD memory card in the nephelometer then email it to Snider. “Nothing fancy,” Snider says. Increasingly in places like Bangladesh, as well as other parts of the developing world, modernization means industrialization and with it decreased air, land and water quality. It is imperative for human health, says Snider, that such pollution levels be monitored and recorded. 

A third-year postdoctoral fellow, Snider is part of Dalhousie’s Surface PARTiculate mAtter Network (SPARTAN) research group, which is collecting and measuring aerosols hazardous to people. SPARTAN’s air sampler devices are being set up in those countries where populations are known to suffer from high levels of particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, also known as PM2.5. Such matter is associated with respiratory, lung cancer and cardiac problems. “The number of annual deaths around the globe attributable to PM2.5 are on the order of three million,” Snider says. Countries like Bangladesh that have few available resources to monitor atmospheric particles are often the nations most in need of data. A lack of emission control standards, in addition to widespread coal-fired plants, an increase in vehicles on the road, numerous small-scale factories, outdoor cooking and the burning of biomass such as garbage creates thick, unhealthy air. Such noxious particulates include nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulphur dioxide (SO2), sulphates and black carbon from various forms of organic combustion. “These all bundle together as PM2.5,” says Snider. 

Snider and his SPARTAN co-researchers have collected data from Buenos Aires, Nigeria, Israel, South Africa, China, Vietnam, Manila and parts of the United States. They ensure that the information is freely available online for researchers and governments, while using the data to analyze PM2.5  patterns, Snider says. This is important information for the World Health Organization, which is increasingly concerned about urban air quality and the deleterious health effects on citizens. 

Atmospheric chemistry has been an interest of Snider’s since his fourth year of undergrad honours studies at Carleton University. He then attended McGill University, taking one year of a master’s degree before transferring to a PhD, focusing his studies on mercury oxidation chemistry and kinetics. A byproduct of coal-fired plants, mercury becomes a hazard when it is converted into methylmercury by microorganisms in the environment. In this form, mercury bioaccumulates in the food chain, working its way into big creatures like whales and tuna. “It’s unhealthy for the animals” as well as those who eat them, says Snider. It also “shows how dynamic the atmosphere is and how quickly mercury can spread,” he adds. 

Snider is interested in atmospheric conditions for another reason — he is a long distance runner who came eighth in the nation in the 2015 Canadian Half Marathon Championships in Calgary. He also writes for Canadian Running and contributed an article last year where he ranked 158 of the biggest marathons in the world according to their NO2 and PM2.5 levels. His report revealed that the three unhealthiest places in the world to run a marathon are Beijing in China, Seoul in South Korea and Ahmedabad in India. “Although lots of places in India are more polluted than most parts of China, I still can’t believe that people still run the Beijing Marathon — I have no plans to run it,” Snider says.  

Snider also rated Canadian marathons, most of which achieved a “good” ranking. Toronto, Niagara Falls and Montreal received a “moderate” ranking, although all were considered healthy places to race. Such sidelines to his research, says Snider, show how chemistry and running “complement each other in interesting ways.”