Dust is an ongoing health concern to the Latrobe Valley community and a local environmental issue.

From 2018 to 2020, EPA worked with the Latrobe Valley community to design a citizen science study that would help us understand the types, sources and transport of dust particulates in the Latrobe Valley. This study researched the sources of dust in the Latrobe Valley and found that most dust in the area was sea salt. To find out about the volume of dust in the form on PM10 particles go to EPA AirWatch.

How the study was designed

A co-design session with the Latrobe Valley community identified three research questions for the project:

  • Are we breathing in harmful heavy metals?
  • Is there a difference in the elements of breathable particulates inside and outside my house?
  • Are we breathing in brown-coal dust?

The study focused on PM10 particles which are very small particles found in dust and smoke. They have a diameter of 10 micrometres (0.01 mm) or smaller.

We collected:

  • Samples of the particles found in the air inside and outside citizen scientist homes over a 24hr period for multiple days using air sampling pumps.
  • Sediment samples of key sources of dust in the region as identified by citizen scientists and our staff.

Study limitations

The study used new air sampling pump technology. There were challenges in optimising this technology for the purposes of the study. Due to this, the number of samples we could collect in the study was lower than we expected and significant conclusions could not be drawn from the results.

What the study found

When the citizen science dust samples and sediment samples were compared to identify potential sources, fewer than 1% of particles collected at citizen scientist’s homes contained materials that could be attributed to a specific source.

Most outdoor particles were made up of silicon and salts and were likely to have come from the ocean, soil and places outside the Latrobe Valley. Indoor particles were similar, but with fewer heavy metals and more fibrous material from fabric, animals and insects.

Very few particles from the dust pump samples could be attributed as coal or coming from coal-industry sources. The study could not answer the specific questions on whether heavy metals or coal dust were being transported to residents’ homes in the Latrobe Valley.

Are we breathing in heavy metals?

Possibly. Fewer than 1 per cent of particles collected at citizen scientist’s homes were heavy metals.

Of the heavy metals detected, lead was the most common, but no lead was found at any of the exposed sediment sites. The lead we found had most likely come from old lead paint. Iron-rich particles were the second most common heavy metal particle. They could possibly be from coal and coal burning processes, but there are many other natural and anthropogenic sources of iron, such as soil, crustal materials, road dust, metals and metal objects inside and outside the home. Determining where these iron-rich particles came from required further investigation which was beyond the scope of this study.

Is there a difference in the elements of breathable particulates inside and outside my house?

Yes, there seems to be a difference. More fibre, plant, insect, hair and skin material were found inside citizen scientist’s homes than outside. Many samples taken inside the homes had low levels of dust that were not sufficient for analysis, suggesting less PM10 inside the house. There were fewer heavy metal particles indoors than outdoors.

Are we breathing in coal dust?

Possibly. Very few particles from the dust pump samplers could be attributed as coal or coming from coal-industry sources. However, on days citizen scientists sampled, the wind was not passing over any coal industry or coal mines. It may be that the sample schedule missed days when coal dust would impact the community.

You can read about our other citizen science projects on the citizen science page. Contact our Statewide Citizen Science Program Coordinator to join a program or suggest a new project for your local area.

Find out more about our citizen science program

Our citizen science program

About citizen science

Our citizen science projects 

Reviewed 8 April 2021