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October 1, 2003

Spectators Discouraged from Watching Building Demolitions

Building implosions can have a severe, but short-lived impact on air quality, according to researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Johns Hopkins Hospital. A study of a Baltimore building demolition found that airborne dust concentrations were especially high in the immediate vicinity and downwind of the demolition. Spectators should be discouraged from attending such events, or if they must attend, they should position themselves at an upwind, distant location. In one of the first studies of its kind, researchers have filled a research gap and responded to community concerns about the impact of such events on community air quality. “The Impact of a Building Implosion on Airborne Particulate Matter in an Urban Community” is published in the October 2003 issue of the Journal of the Air and Waste Management Association.

Lead investigator Tim Buckley, PhD, associate professor in the School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences, said, “Building implosions have become common within the urban environment, yet we know little of the hazard posed to surrounding communities or spectators. With this study, we can begin to answer some of the fundamental questions asked by communities about the impact of such events on air quality.”

The researchers studied the quality of air within a four-block radius immediately after the August 19, 2000, implosion of a 22-story building in east Baltimore, Md. Samples were taken at seven indoor locations and four outdoor sites. They found that immediately after the implosion, concentrations of airborne dust particles were as much as 3,000 times higher than they had been prior to the demolition. As expected, sites nearest to the implosion had a more dramatic and earlier peak when compared to sites further away. Even at the furthest site, seven and one-half blocks from the implosion, there was a 20-fold increase in particulate matter. The good news, according to the researchers, is that the peaks were very short-lived, lasting only 15-20 minutes.

No measurable effect was found upwind of the implosion, nor in the indoor sample sites. The researchers suggest that remaining upwind of a building demolition and staying indoors offers protection from high outdoor concentrations of dust particles. Although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency National Ambient Air Quality Standard for particulate matter was not exceeded, the study still found that particle levels were elevated and were a risk to public health. The dust particles can irritate or damage tissues deep within the lungs, especially for the very young, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems or underlying heart or lung disease.

Dr. Buckley said, “The spectator hazard can be avoided easily and completely by simply staying at home and watching the event on television. The fix is not so easy for the surrounding community. Our results suggest that staying indoors with the doors and windows closed will offer some protection.”

Senior research technician Christopher M. Beck, Assistant Professor Alison Geyh, and Professor Patrick Breysse, all in the School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences, and Arjun Srinivasan and Peyton A. Eggleston, with the Johns Hopkins Hospital, co-authored the study.

Research was supported by grants from the Center for Childhood Asthma in the Urban Environment and the Johns Hopkins Center in Urban Environmental Health.

Public Affairs Media Contacts for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: Kenna Brigham or Tim Parsons at 410-955-6878 or paffairs@jhsph.edu. Photographs of Tim Buckley are available upon request.