Carnegie Mellon Researchers Create New Center to Study Tiny, Unhealthful Airborne Particles-Mellon College of Science - Carnegie Mellon University

Thursday, October 6, 2005

Carnegie Mellon Researchers Create New Center to Study Tiny, Unhealthful Airborne Particles

PITTSBURGH—Carnegie Mellon University researchers led by Chemical Engineering and Chemistry Professor Neil Donahue have created a new center to pinpoint the sources and effects of harmful atmospheric particles.

"Eighty percent of the particle pollutants we breathe in Pittsburgh come from someplace else, and other Eastern cities are in the same soup," said Donahue. "Everyone is contributing to the problem and no one will be able to solve it themselves, so we are creating a center to investigate a variety of pollution sources."

The $2 million Center for Atmospheric Particle Studies (CAPS) will conduct laboratory and field tests to investigate the health effects of particulate matter, including natural and synthetic nanoparticles, and to understand the role of regional transport of these airborne particles. The center builds on decades of successful research on air pollution at Carnegie Mellon.

"This university is the best place to house a multidisciplinary center like CAPS," said Donahue, an atmospheric chemist whose research focuses on chemical production and transformation of particles in the atmosphere. Other Carnegie Mellon center researchers include Allen Robinson, a mechanical engineer specializing in emissions of particles into the atmosphere; Spyros Pandis, a chemical engineer interested in regional air quality modeling and the interaction of particles with clouds; Peter Adams, a civil and environmental engineer focusing on the interaction of particles, regional air quality and global climate; and Cliff Davidson, a civil and environmental engineer interested in the role of metals, such as lead, in particles and in understanding how particles are removed from the atmosphere.

Four of the CAPS members are also members of the Department of Engineering and Public Policy. A major objective of the center is to guide public policy with comprehensive, timely research. CAPS members have provided EPA with guidance on new PM and lead standards and will continue to serve on local, state and national regulatory bodies.

Pittsburgh's history and buildings are stained with soot from steel mills and coal-burning home furnaces and locomotives, but pollution controls enacted over the last half century removed much of the visible dust and soot from the air.

Still, interest in the tiny, almost invisible PM2.5 particles ballooned in the early 1990s when dozens of studies found a clear correlation between PM2.5 pollution and health effects, including hospitalization and premature death. Studies also showed that these particles could be breathed more deeply into the lungs than larger soot particles. They can cause a variety of health problems, including some asthma attacks, cardiac disease, and upper and lower respiratory distress.

Because of those study findings, the EPA in 1997 decided to require metropolitan areas to begin monitoring aerosols. Allegheny County has conducted PM2.5 sampling at 12 monitoring stations since 1999.

And the monitoring has continued. In 2003, Carnegie Mellon researchers manned a sophisticated air monitoring "Supersite" that showed distant coal-burning power plants and other industries west of Pittsburgh and car and truck traffic throughout the region are major sources of the dangerous tiny soot particles. At the same time, Carnegie Mellon renovated the combustion laboratory in Hamerschlag Hall and built the $1 million Air Quality Laboratory in Doherty Hall, where graduate students from all center departments work collaboratively to understand urban pollution under controlled conditions in the lab. The new center researchers are also working to build computer models that can predict the effects of reducing specific sources, predict how chemistry transforms particles in the atmosphere and predict the influence of those particles on global climate.

Center researchers also are partnering with the Allegheny County Health Department to investigate air toxics in the Neville Island area. The $1.6 million project is supported by Allegheny County's Clean Air Fund and the EPA. The team will use a mobile laboratory and some of the county's air monitoring stations to measure and record pollutants around Neville Island, a narrow sliver of land in the Ohio River between McKees Rocks and Coraopolis.

To complement increased research projects, CAPS will acquire additional state-of-the-art instrumentation and establish a core atmospheric sciences curriculum, including a new introductory meteorology and climate course for engineering graduate students.

By: Chriss Swaney