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OnAir: Research Underdogs Fill Atmospheric Blind Spot

2010 April 6

AAAR_underdogs1Andy Grieshop and Ben Murphy call themselves underdogs.

“A few years ago when we presented our research… people would just stare at us blankly,” Andy recalled.

But now, several years and publications later, the skeptical tone has changed. During a presentation at the 2010 AAAR conference in San Diego, audience members seemed encouraged by what they saw.

Andy and Ben are two members of a group of Carnegie Mellon scientists who have spent years trying to fill a big blind spot in atmospheric modeling.

Historically, most models of atmospheric air pollution significantly underestimated the amount of a specific kind of particle, called secondary organic aerosol (SOA).

“What we actually observe in the atmosphere is a factor of 3 – 100 times more than the SOA traditional models predict,” Grieshop explained.

This means that the information used by scientists and policymakers to make important pollution control decisions is not representing everything that people breathe.

According to Grieshop and Murphy, the traditional models overlook some key reactions and processes that take place as particles age and transform in the atmosphere. Most people do not breathe particles emitted directly from a tail pipe, they explained. People breathe in particles that have spent time in the air, moving and reacting with other chemicals.

“When particles dilute, evaporate and then condense back to particles, a lot about them changes,” Murphy said.

Some of these changes could be important to human health.

“Health researchers need accurate models to understand what people are actually exposed to,” Murphy said.

If SOA, as some preliminary studies suggest, is more toxic to people, the new models could be critical for protection of public health.

The new model incorporates atmospheric processes that contribute to SOA formation and does a much better job of predicting what people breathe.

“It’s pretty close to right-on,” Grieshop said, “in terms of matching what we observe in the atmosphere.”

Though more research needs to be done to “drill deeper” into atmospheric processes that may change particles, both scientists agree that this finding could have a big impact.

Their research is already being incorporated into state and local air quality models that are used to manage and control pollution.

“You never really expect that your specific research in atmospheric chemistry may be important for national policy so early on in your career,” Grieshop said excitedly.

“This has been a really great opportunity for us to make a difference.”

About the Author: Becky Fried is a science writer 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. Al Bannet permalink
    April 6, 2010

    Air pollution should be stopped at its source, but scientists who are sensitive tp corporate needs prefer to study it as though it’s an integral part of the environment.

  2. armansyahardanis permalink
    April 7, 2010

    If Andy and Ben presented their research, its said to us that AAAR 2010 contained airmultidiscipline science, so can add resources of environmental protection. This done sure to collect and next time by comprehensive acts, can make solve our planets.

  3. Dr. E. Waal permalink
    April 7, 2010

    This is the type of work that can lead to properly placed, effective regulation. If the SOA are shown to have significant health impacts and we can identify the sources of the constituents that contribute to their formation, we can focus efforts on controlling the right sources. Further, if the health impacts can be quantified, the SOA can be compared to other pollutants and EPA can make informed decisions on where to place resources and to spend budget dollars for the greatest benfit. Budgets will surely be squeezed as the enormous deficit our government has heaped on us begins to take its toll. EPA will need to pick and choose what to regulate, and I am hopeful that the decisions will be science based, rational, and represent tax dollars well spent. Repeat the mantra, “SCIENCE RULES, SCIENCE RULES, SCIENCE RULES …” Good work Ben and Andy. Work such as your’s can contribute to good decision making. It’s up to EPA leadership to be good stewards of our science and our dollars.

  4. Lynn Allen permalink
    April 7, 2010

    Dear Sirs,
    Hasn’t anyone besides me noticed long strands of clear nasal
    drainage coming from my nose the past couple of years .
    I told my mother , elderly , that this is the effects of carbon in the
    atmosphere. I live in a rural area.

    Thank you

  5. Al Bannet permalink
    April 8, 2010

    There could be a toxic waste dump nearby. Check the area.

  6. trish permalink
    September 30, 2010

    Did I hear that there is a conference in San Diego coming soon-about research/topics related to the atmosphere? It was mentioned on the NPR show, but didn’t catch the date or venue.

    thanks so much

  7. Anne Woodworth permalink
    May 12, 2011

    I agree Al. The pollution should be stopped at it’s source. How about the lingering jet contrail pollution. I have jets spray over my house daily and I have to tell you…it is very depressing having very little sunlight as well as increasing Respitory and other health issues such as Cancer. In Victoria BC Canada…we are now starting to have Cancer Hotle Resorts for family of the Sick. We have a whole New Cancer Wing too. How far are people willing to take things to make Money…and have a ‘Career’. Appaling.

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