The exhaust fumes from gasoline vehicles contribute more to the production of a specific type of air pollution-secondary organic aerosols (SOA)-than those from diesel vehicles, according to a new study by scientists from the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES). Secondary organic aerosols, tiny “tar balls” resulting from combustion products of internal combustion engines that can encapsulate gaseous pollutants, have been identified as a danger to health. Diesel fuel oil seems to be more responsible for these aerosols than gasoline which is counter to normal thinking on the subject.
“The surprising result we found was that it wasn’t diesel engines that were contributing the most to the organic aerosols in LA,” said CIRES research scientist Roya Bahreini, who led the study and also works at NOAA’s ESRL. “This was contrary to what the scientific community expected.”
SOAs are very tiny organic particulates that are formed in air and make up typically 40 percent to 60 percent of the aerosol mass in urban environments. They are dangerous to health just by being small and able to bypass the body’s filters. In additional they may encapsulate other pollutants such as sulfur compounds or NOx.
Due to the harmful nature of these particles and the fact that they can also impact the climate and can reduce visibility, scientists want to understand how they form, Bahreini said. Researchers had already established that SOAs could be formed from gases released by gasoline engines, diesel engines, and natural sources-biogenic agents from plants and trees-but they had not determined which of these sources were the most significant, she said. “We needed to do the study in a location where we could separate the contribution from vehicles from that of natural emissions from vegetation,” Bahreini said.
Los Angeles proved to be an ideal location for this task. Flanked by an ocean on one side and by mountains to the north and the east, it is, in terms of air circulation, relatively isolated, Bahreini said. At this location, the scientists made three weekday and three weekend flights with the NOAA P3 research aircraft, which hosted an arsenal of instruments designed to measure different aspects of air pollution.
From their measurements, the scientists were able to confirm, as expected, that diesel trucks were used less during weekends, while the use of gasoline vehicles remained nearly constant throughout the week. The team then expected that the weekend levels of SOAs would take a dive from their weekday levels, Bahreini said
The levels of the SOA particles remained relatively unchanged from their weekday levels. Because the scientists knew that the only two sources for SOA production in this location were gasoline and diesel fumes, the study’s result pointed directly to gasoline as the key source.
“The contribution of diesel to SOA is almost negligible,” Bahreini said. “Even being conservative, we could deduce from our results that the maximum upper limit of contribution to SOA would be 20 percent.”
That leaves gasoline contributing the other 80 percent or more of the SOA, Bahreini said. The finding will be published in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.
Article appearing courtesy Environmental News Network.