Research Press Release

Environment: Sources of harmful components in particulate air pollution identified

Nature

November 19, 2020

An analysis of air quality in Europe suggests that mitigation strategies aimed at reducing the concentration of particulate matter may not necessarily reduce the oxidative potential of this kind of pollution, which is thought to have negative effects on health. The findings, reported in a study published in Nature, indicate that the sources of particulate matter mass and of oxidative potential in Europe are different.

Particulate matter in the air has been linked to millions of premature deaths worldwide. The predicted risk to health from these particles tends to be based on their concentration, but size and composition are also thought to play a part. The oxidative potential of particles — their ability to increase the oxidization of molecules in cells, which may cause cellular damage — is one of many ways particulate matter may affect health. However, the source of the particulate matter that may control oxidative activity remains uncertain.

Kaspar Dällenbach and colleagues collected air pollution samples from sites in Switzerland and assessed their oxidative potential. The authors then combined their measurements with air-quality modelling to quantify the sources of particulate matter and oxidative potential across Europe. They find that the mass concentration of particulate matter is mostly controlled by mineral dust, secondary organic aerosols produced indirectly from emissions from vegetation, and secondary inorganic aerosols (such as ammonium, nitrates and sulphates) produced indirectly from anthropogenic emissions. In contrast, the main sources of oxidative potential were anthropogenic, including metals from vehicle non-exhaust emissions (such as those produced by braking) and secondary organic aerosols arising mainly from residential biomass (for example, wood) burning.

doi:10.1038/s41586-020-2902-8

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