On Drum Corps, Air Quality, and Diesel Engines

The last two seasons or so of drum corps have been both a renaissance and a reckoning. Thanks to magnificent reporting by Tricia Nadolny1 and the Philadelphia Enquirer, the problems of sexual abuse, poor hiring practices, and a general lack of concern for member safety have been in the spotlight, and I believe our activity is better off for it. I'm not sure I have anything new to add to this conversation, but I would like to make three quick points:

  1. To those who have stepped up and told their stories: Thank you. The drum corps community owes a lot to you and your bravery.
  2. The headlines aren't indicative of the trendlines – there has never been a safer time to march drum corps than now. We have a long way to go, but I think this point is important.
  3. Things are getting better far too slowly, and I think it's more than fair that decision makers in the activity like Dan Acheson and most corps directors are not afforded the luxury of patience. They need to have acted several years ago and calls for their resignations (or firings) are absolutely justified 2.

We need to continue to address these issues and fix drum corps culture, and they are unequivocally more important than the concerns I'll raise here. However, the recent focus on member safety has made me wonder what other issues we don't see now, but will regret not having seen in the future. I think I've found a good candidate: pollution from diesel engines.

I work for the EPA in the Office of Transportation and Air Quality3, modeling real-world emissions from cars and trucks and their impact on air quality around the United States. It's my job to try to estimate emissions as they actually are – regardless of what regulations have been put in place or whether it makes the Agency, or other parties, look good or bad. I tend to spend my time specifically on heavy-duty diesel engines, which involves semi trucks, delivery trucks, and buses, among other things.

Diesel engines drive drum corps. Every equipment truck, every bus, most prop trucks, and most food trucks all run on diesel. The problem with this is that diesel is dirtier than gasoline, with much higher emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter (PM). Drum corps members and staff spend most of the time they're not rehearsing or sleeping in this polluted air. Think about how much time members spend waiting in line to get food, loading and unloading the equipment truck, hanging out in the lot before and after shows, and so on. It adds up.

I think this is a potential member safety issue because these pollutants4 are really bad for you. Long-term exposure can lead to difficulty breathing, development of asthma, increased susceptibility to respiratory infections, and heart problems such as an irregular heartbeat. Short term exposure can lead to headaches (I had headaches constantly in drum corps, and this could have been a reason why) and irritation of the nose, throat, and lungs. These problems are exacerbated for young people with developing bodies, like drum corps members, or those who already have respiratory conditions, like many parents who volunteer.

EPA regulates NOx and PM emissions from diesel engines, and almost all engines on the road today are equipped with emission control systems. Unfortunately, these controls work best when the engine is warmed up and operating under driving conditions. But in drum corps, the engines are idling almost all the time that members and staff are around them (in the lot before and after shows, during meals, and clean-pack-load, for example), which means they're not working hard enough for some of the emission controls to kick in. Emissions can be, in those instances, much higher than what's written in the regulations. To make matters worse, there's recently been a massive recall of diesel engines due to an emission control failure that can cause them to be almost completely ineffective.

All of this culminates into what I see as a potentially significant problem for DCI: drum corps members, staff, and volunteers are likely exposed to NOx and PM emissions at a much higher rate than the general public. This could result in increased occurrence of respiratory and heart problems both on tour and later in life. These symptoms would also interfere with the members' ability to perform at their highest level every day, which is bad for fans as well.

All of this is just a hypothesis, however. It's entirely possible that (a) I am overestimating the exposure time of members and staff around idling engines, or (b) I am overestimating the effect increased exposure actually has on the health of everyone around the activity. If either of these is the case, then obviously we don't need to do anything. Likewise, we could all agree that maybe this is a problem, but not one to be addressed in the immediate future given everything else we're dealing with. I would be fine with that.

At the very least, I think I've laid out a strong argument study the issue further. There are a number of research questions we would have to answer before calling for action from drum corps administrations would be appropriate5, namely:

  1. What is the actual exposure level (basically, how bad is the air quality) in drum corps lots around the diesel engines? What about during meals, or when corps are loading/unloading at housing sites?
  2. What is the actual of amount of exposure time for a typical drum corps performer or staff member on tour?
  3. What is the occurrence of both long-term and short-term symptoms from NOx and PM exposure among drum corps members, staff, and alumni? How does this compare to the general population?

I have thoughts on how we could begin to answer these questions, and I think it'd be a fun project, but I can't do it alone. I would happily work with anyone who wanted to volunteer to collaborate on a project or help collect data. As someone who's aged out, not good enough to teach, and who can't volunteer as much as I would like, this is a fun, worthwhile way to contribute to the activity. If you'd like to collaborate, get in touch! I'm on reddit and GitHub, or can always be contacted by old-fashioned email.


1 Congrats to Tricia Nadolny for recently being named a Livingston Award finalist for excellence in journalism from my alma mater, the University of Michigan!

2 One of the most important lessons we learn from marching drum corps is how to be accountable. The hypocrisy that the people leading the activity are not accountable themselves is inexcusable.

3 While working at the EPA is my day job, I am writing this post as a private citizen based on my scientific knowledge. Nothing you read here is, in any way, an indication of the Agency's policy positions and no form of official endorsement should be inferred.

4 A lot of the danger doesn't strictly come from the NOx and PM themselves – there's a lot of atmospheric chemistry and secondary reactions that cause other pollutants, like ozone, to be formed as well. I've lumped the health effects of all of these together for simplicity.

5 Luckily, there are a number of things drum corps can do if this were to be an issue. The most obvious thing would be to tell drivers to kill the engines when people are spending time outside around the vehicles – especially during clean-pack-load and when corps are unloading at lots before shows. This would also help corps save money by burning less fuel. However, drum corps can also retrofit vehicles with emissions better emissions controls, be more diligent in buying newer vehicles, or adopt non-engine power sources like APUs or better batteries. While many of these options can be somewhat costly, I believe (granted this is outside my area of expertise) there are several federal and state grant programs that make funds available for this purpose.

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