ES Ph.D Candidate Wins EPA Grant to Study Biodiesel Risks

ANE Environmental Studies Ph.D candidate Nora Velazquez has won an EPA grant to assess the effect of biodiesel on workers exposed to its exhaust. Since the cost differential between biodiesel and petroleum diesel has narrowed, the vegetable-based fuel has been making gains in the marketplace. But we have much to learn about its safety. “There’s this attitude that says ‘it’s green and it’s renewable and that makes it great,’ but that’s not necessarily true,” says Velazquez.

The risks presented by petroleum diesel, however, are well known. Its carcinogens combine with soot particles to form a delivery system ideal for travelling deep into the lungs. So Velazquez is comparing the risks of working around emissions from the two fuels. The research allows her to collaborate with Dr. Melinda Treadwell, a professor at Keene State College, and an expert in particulate matter toxicology.

Conveniently, the Keene recycling center, where biodiesel fuels much of the equipment, provides an ideal site for the research. “You have the potential for occupational health exposure to both petro diesel and biodiesel, and they are long-term sources of emissions in the local environment,” says Velazquez. She also points out that most studies have focused on heavy-duty transportation engines, like tractor-trailers. But the recycling center buzzes with construction-type equipment—front-end loaders, backhoes, excavators—and the equipment runs both indoors and out, adding further relevance to her study.

In many ways, Nora Velazquez stands at the intersection of environmental protection and occupational health protection. She has served in senior management for chemical and pharmaceutical companies, always responsible for environmental management and worker health protection. “Since I was involved in organizational risk decisions, I was intrigued by how people have different perceptions of risk,” she says. Her background in engineering and industry has given her a deep understanding of risks in the workplace, and that, combined Antioch’s ES Ph.D program, has fostered what she calls her “fascination with the interaction between the workplace and the outside environment.”

“The environmental movement tends to think of the environment as ‘out there.’ We don’t often consider how we can make workplaces healthier and thereby reduce pollution risk. That’s my research interest,” Velazquez says. And it makes perfect sense for a safety professional with undergraduate and masters degrees in technical fields. “I needed a broader view, from political economy to history and policy. That’s why the whole interdisciplinary aspect of the Antioch program drew me to it.”

The process of applying for the EPA grant forced Velazquez to define her area of research interest, which she parlayed into the core question driving her dissertation proposal: Does biodiesel use reduce both environmental and occupational health risk?
Her proposal has been accepted. “I’ve entered my fifth life—as researcher-scholar—and it’s very exciting.”

In addition to shaping a doctoral program to match her passions, Velazquez has also formed important partnerships in the community, specifically with Keene State and the City of Keene. She recently joined the faculty of Keene State’s Technology Design and Safety Department. Many of her students have been eager to help her during long hours in the laboratory. “The project’s on a tight budget, so the equipment is pretty low-tech. But it’s fun. And talk about interdisciplinary—it brings students in touch with environmental science, chemistry, industrial hygiene, and environmental air monitoring.”

The city of Keene, a participant in Cities for Climate Protection, has been using biodiesel since 2002 as a way of curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Velazquez reports that city officials perceive that worker health has improved as a result of switching to the new fuel, and they came to researchers at Keene State to verify their hunch. The request led Velazquez to form her dissertation question and formalize the research approach. At this point, she is knee-deep in fieldwork and lab analysis, grateful that the EPA will allow her to commit the next year to research that could have far-reaching scientific, economic, and policy-making effects.