Science Wednesday: EPA Awards Research Grants to Study Black Carbon

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By Katie Lubinsky

My morning drive to work involves bypassing road construction. You know … the smell of baking asphalt, those bright, dizzying orange cones in the road that you almost hit, and of course, construction trucks galore!

I breathe in the smoky, throat-gripping exhaust from the construction vehicles, which seems ‘oh-so-healthy’ for the environment. I couldn’t help but wonder how the exhaust from the diesel vehicles here compares to other exhaust sources, not just locally, but globally.
One pollutant associated with diesel exhaust as well as contributing to global air pollution is black carbon (BC). BC is a short-lived aerosol that stays in the atmosphere from days to weeks. While there, BC absorbs solar radiation and quickly warms the climate. It affects weather patterns like rain and cloud formation as well as deposits on snow and ice in Arctic areas that, in turn, darken the snow and ice causing a warming climate by decreasing Earth’s reflective power.

Health effects are also a concern with this pollutant; especially in developing countries where many people rely on indoor cook stoves that burn BC-emitting fuels (biomass, wood or coal). This, in turn, affects those around the stoves. In fact, BC contributes to mortality, cardiovascular and lung problems, and other health problems.

EPA recently awarded nine Science to Achieve Results Research Grants to eight universities to extensively study BC. Research will involve tracking BC aging in the atmosphere, using innovative computer models to look at BC deposits in the snow of the Great Plains and Canada, and studying how BC and other materials deposit into human lungs and incorporate into rain drops.

The grants went to: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (two grants); Carnegie Mellon University; University of California, Irvine; University of California, Riverside; University of Iowa; University of Washington; University of Wisconsin-Madison; and Rutgers University.

The goal of the EPA-supported research is to help answer several scientific and policy-related questions about the effectiveness of actions that can be taken to mitigate BC’s impact on climate and air quality. Hopefully, they will also help clear the air for my future morning commutes.

About the author: Katie Lubinsky is a student contractor working with EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

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