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Science Wednesday: OnAir: Tunneling for Air Pollution Answers

2010 February 3

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

Lately, John Godleski has spent a lot of time underground.

When I visited Harvard in December though, he surfaced for a chat with me about his unique research.

Along with colleagues at the Harvard Particulate Matter Research Center, Godleski has set up air pollution monitoring equipment inside a busy tunnel in the Northeast.

Part of the Toxicological Evaluation of Realistic Emission Source Aerosol, his study aims to assess differences between the health effects of exposure to particles directly from car exhaust (primary), and particles from exhaust that have transformed in the atmosphere (secondary).

The underlying hypothesis of the project is that breathing in particles that come directly from a vehicle might induce different health effects than breathing in particles that have spent time in the atmosphere, where they come into contact with sunlight.

To test the hypothesis, Godleski and his colleagues developed a photochemical aging chamber that essentially mimics real-world atmospheric conditions with simulated sunlight.

Exhaust from cars is fed into the chamber first with the artificial sun-lights switched to “off” and to then to “on.” This produces two types of output: exhaust with just primary particles (lights off), and exhaust with both primary and secondary particles (lights on).

Project scientists then conduct lab studies to look for differences in resulting health outcomes.

Preliminary findings suggest that the “lights on” particles, representing particles that have come into contact with sunlight, cause more lung inflammation and more potentially harmful oxidative activity in the body.

Since secondary particles in the air are ubiquitous, understanding their health impacts is extremely important.

“Though some people are involved in what directly comes out of a vehicle or a power plant, everybody is exposed to what happens to those particles once they are in the air,” Godleski explained.

Collection of exhaust particles directly from the tunnel makes this study especially representative of real-world particle exposure.

“If we go to a tunnel,” he continued, “we can get a mixture of vehicle output—we can get cars, we can get trucks, and we can get something very representative of what people ultimately may breathe. It gives us access to a mixed vehicle effluent in a way that nothing else does.”

This research is a critical step toward understanding the health effects of real-world airborne particle exposure. We will continue to report findings as Godleski continues to dig for answers.

About the Author: Becky Fried is a student contractor with EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research. Her OnAir posts are a regular “Science Wednesday” feature.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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7 Responses leave one →
  1. armansyahardanis permalink
    February 3, 2010

    Excuse me, your operator different with us here. Our operator, for example in Lunang Resettlement area, West Sumatera, just 6th graduate. Their responsibility have to maintain and arrange spill way of floodgate, to measure rainfall and to announce emergencies conditions. There isn’t air pollution equipments and have not research center for data processing.
    I am so sad, because they are only government part timer………

  2. David Mc permalink
    February 3, 2010


    Were you one of those “resettled”?

    What types of air or other pollution do you suspect?
    If you know what the processes are in your area, you can test for fewer pollutants. It much easier and cheaper if you know what to look for. You might even employ local schoolchildren to help. Is it mostly from burning fuel for electricity? Mining? Manufacturing?

    As far as the flooding. Are there any natural reservoirs that can be fitted (with pipes or tunnels) to empty slowly through an electric turbine? These could be used to redirect some water quickly during flood danger times and produce clean energy. If enough energy can be obtained to pay for the project, after proper review of any other negative impact on the land, it could be a win-win.

  3. Michael E. Bailey permalink
    February 4, 2010

    This is vitally important research. The California Air Resources Board released a study on January 12, 2010 as part of the “Chair’s Air Pollution Siminar Series” on cardiovascular response to freeway air. This study had some significant results. Unfiltered freeway air compared to filtered air breathing resulted in an increased frequency of atrial arrhythmias that can trigger sustained arrhythmias in susceptible people. An increased concentration of NTproBNP in the unfiltered air is a marker for intra-atrial pressure, and an increase in concentration of VEGF in unfiltered air is a marker for vascular injury. This is more reason why we should convert to the all electric powered car and the hydrogen fueled car and use solar energy to recharge electric car batteries and to manufacture the hydrogen. Best wishes, Michael E. Bailey.

  4. Fred permalink
    February 4, 2010

    Becky, thanks for writing an easy to understand description of a fairly complex topic. Perhaps you could add a link to the researchers web site to help readers who want to dig into more detail. Also, we are experimenting with aerosols in an environmental chamber and a story on this EPA research might make an addition to your blog.

  5. armansyahardanis permalink
    February 4, 2010

    Brother David Mc,
    In our culture is not knew win-win solution. We are just to do top to bottom, or in anthropologys’ is Paternalistic. In my office, I am not decision maker and then doesn’t create my ideas. But win-win solution maybe rise, for example, deal for corruption or for something interests. I am sorry, I am not like that…..

  6. David Mc permalink
    February 4, 2010

    Okay, I was just trying to understand your situation. Ideas can be pushed from the bottom to the top with some education. Stay strong.

  7. kevin permalink
    May 21, 2010

    Air pollution has become a major problem now a days as more and more vehicles are on road and too much pollution is carried out, But the major part is not the pollution its the corruption that is going on in the developed as well as under developed countries, major low small companies and big companies are bribing the pollution control board inspector for letting the company to do what they want and increase their production, which in result all the people near that area are affected and later on due to toxic gene mutation takes place which result in cancer or such type of diseases………..

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