Auto emissions pose significant health risk

Ultrafine particles in the atmosphere are unregulated, according to the World Health Organization, but researchers have shown that auto emissions– a key factor in the creation of the tiny matter – pose a significant health problem in many urban areas.

The latest research studied auto emissions relevant to urban areas, especially Beijing, which has some of the highest pollution from auto exhaust in the world.

It found that the auto exhaust plays a part in the creation of large amounts of ultrafine particles, tiny matter that is no wider than one-thousandth of a human hair. These tiny particles are a proven harmful contributor to air quality and human health and have been linked to birth defects, according to a statement.

“This has been an emerging area for research,” commented Renyi Zhang of Texas A&M, who was a member of the research team. “Ultrafine particles can penetrate easily through human lungs and reach many vital organs. The impacts of ultrafine particles on human health can be far-reaching. Currently, ultrafine particles are un-regulated. They can be present in high concentrations, but you still see blue sky.”

The air quality standards established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) only limit the mass concentration of PM2.5 – referring to particles smaller than 2.5 microns – for human health concerns. Ultrafine particles make up little PM2.5, because of their negligibly small masses. They are produced more efficiently when the atmospheric PM2.5 levels are low, according to this study.

“Our measurements are representative of typical urban environments worldwide since the gasoline fleet of the commonly used vehicle model in China is equivalent to those in Europe and the United States,” the researchers wrote in the paper.

While finding ways to reduce the ultrafine particles will require much more research, Zhang says drivers using electric cars would almost certainly help. But that could be years in the future since electric vehicles currently make up less than onepercent of over a billion vehicles on roads worldwide.

Zhang said the study shows for the first time “that traffic emissions are a major source for ultrafine particles. Our studies show that aromatic organic compounds from auto exhaust form these ultrafine particles. They form in any cities from car exhaust, such as Houston, New York City, and Washington, D.C. Residents who live close to highways or congested roads are particularly vulnerable.”

Image credit: pangalactic gargleblaster and the heart of gold via Flickr

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