Fine Particle Pollution Underestimated, Scientists Find

Researchers find secondary organic aerosol particles, formed after gasoline engine combustion, are more persistent in the environment than originally thought.

Published: 27-Feb-2012

Fine atmospheric particles — smaller than one-thirtieth of the diameter of a human hair — were identified more than 20 years ago as the most lethal of the widely dispersed air pollutants in the United States. Linked to both heart and lung disease, they kill an estimated 50,000 Americans each year. But more recently, scientists have been puzzled to learn that a subset of these particles, called secondary organic aerosols, has a greater total mass, and is thus more dangerous, than previously understood.

A batch of new scientific findings is helping sort out the discrepancy, including, most recently, a study led by scientists at the University of California, Irvine, and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash., that is scheduled to be released on Tuesday. It indicates that the compounds’ persistence in the atmosphere was under-represented in older scientific models.

“If the authors’ analysis is correct, the public is now facing a false sense of security in knowing whether the air they breathe is indeed safe,” said Bill Becker, of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies.

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