Chaffee student places first in science fair for third year

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Alex Heeb never thought his allergies would contribute to a winning science fair project.

"For as long as I can remember, when it is mid-June I wanted to be outside and enjoying myself, and then the air would get really stinky and my allergies would go crazy," he said.

Heeb wondered if smoke from farmers' burning fields contributed to respiratory problems. Armed with an air monitor, the homeschooled junior studied levels of tiny particles, called fine particulate matter, next to fields that were burning. He compared the levels, measured in micrograms per cubic meter of air, to those present away from fields.

"Fires produce fine particles that are too small for you to see. They can go into your lungs and cause a lot of respiratory problems. This matter is so small it can go right past your body's defenses," he said.

The Chaffee, Mo., student presented his findings Thursday at the 52nd annual Southeast Missouri Regional Science Fair. The fair was held at the Show Me Center in Cape Girardeau, and attracted students from 18 junior high schools and eight high schools.

Heeb has won all three years he has presented in the senior high division. The top two finishers each year advance to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. This year the fair will be held from May 11 to 17 in Atlanta.

Wyatt Walls was the other top finisher for the second year in a row. Walls is a 10th-grader from Steele, Mo., about 100 miles south of Cape Girardeau.

Heeb completed his study from June 12 to 22.

"During that time, I found 122 fields that had been burned in Scott and Stoddard counties alone," he said. "Any time the level of particles gets over 25, it's considered dangerous to human health. What I recorded in my study is that sometimes the levels got up to 700, or near the burning fields it would get up to over a thousand."

Comparing the dates of field burning to average emergency room visits for respiratory problems, he found a correlation. On days when the air quality was good, there were on average six people admitted, he said. But on burning days, the average rose to nine.

Several conclusions can be drawn, Heeb said.

"I think farmers should stop burning when the level of particles gets over 30. Or perhaps the wheat stubble could be harvested and turned into particle board, paper or plywood ... Some farmers no-till their fields and just harvest the straw and plant the next crop directly without doing any burning," he said.

No such research on fine particulate matter had been completed in Missouri before his study, Heeb said. The closest monitor to detect the particles is in Ste. Genevieve.

"One of the conclusions from my study is that there needs to be a permanent monitor to get a better idea of how the particles are affecting people," he said.

335-6611, extension 123

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