Trends of Note from an Air Quality Scientist

Everyone wants fresh, unpolluted air to breathe. How do we make sure we have it? 

Since the 1970s Battelle has supported the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) mission to protect human health and the environment. Recently our work for the agency has included updating and improving the technical procedures that underpin all of its national ambient air monitoring networks. These programs permit the EPA to assess progress toward its goals of reducing levels of hazardous air pollutants and to better understand how to decrease concentrations of ground-level ozone and fine particulate matter, which are both criteria, or common, pollutants regulated under the Clean Air Act and its amendments.  

Part of our work for EPA also has included collaborating with researchers from the Ohio State University to develop and demonstrate the feasibility of a spectroscopic technique to measure formaldehyde at trace levels in outdoor air in near real-time. Recently we have been discussing how this technology may be applied to measure ethylene oxide in outdoor air since this pollutant is of increasing concern following the revision of its cancer risk level.

These two trends are interrelated. That is, some substances are only now surfacing as a concern, and modern methods and instruments are allowing us to better detect these and newer, emerging pollutants. 

New Concerns

Perhaps the compounds of greatest emerging air quality interest are per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). They’ve risen to the level of Hollywood notice: A new theatrical release called Dark Waters was released November 22, in addition to the documentary The Devil We Know that came out in 2018. 

These durable chemicals are used in firefighting foams as well as water-repellent materials, non-stick cookware and takeout containers, and have been manufactured and used for decades. They are in our bodies because they’ve gotten into the environment and don’t break down.

Battelle is investing heavily in assessing the extent of PFAS contamination and in figuring out how to destroy PFAS. Our investments include demonstrating a method to measure PFAS in ambient air to understand how it is dispersed and the amount we are breathing. 

Benefits of Technology

Scientists and engineers continue to develop more sophisticated instrumentation that allows us to measure airborne pollutants with greater accuracy and sensitivity. 

For instance, routine monitoring of particulate matter will continue to evolve from filter-based techniques to near-real time instruments. And other new instruments allow better measurements of nitrogen oxides. In the past, NO2 was likely being overestimated by less sophisticated instrumentation.    

There will be a continued evolution toward real-time monitoring, including the widespread adoption of low-cost sensors. The availability of these inexpensive monitors is leading to increasing public awareness of air pollution and greater demands for action to decrease its negative health effects.

Californians are using low-cost sensors to assess the air quality impacts from wildfires and determine, for example, if they want to go outside to exercise or if it would be better to go to an indoor gym. 

And more broadly, awareness is growing of episodic air pollution such as what we are seeing in New Dehli, India. That issue is caused by stagnant air and the open burning of agricultural residues, which is banned but happens nonetheless. 

Finally, there is increasing recognition of the connection between climate change and worsening air quality, where hotter temperatures lead to more photochemical air pollution such as ozone and fine particulate matter. 

Battelle is on the forefront of air quality science. New technology and new methods being developed by Battelle and others improve our understanding of what’s in the air we breathe. 

November 25, 2019
Battelle Insider
Estimated Read Time
3 Mins

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