Reducing primary chemical emissions does not always reduce pollution

Boston, Mass. Municipalities seeking to limit harmful air pollution typically target primary pollutants with the assumption that limiting sulfur dioxide, for example, will limit the formation of sulfate particulates in the air, but a team of Penn State meteorologists suggests that, depending on the location, other pollutants may actually be the limiting factors.

"Sulfate aerosols have a large effect on the lungs and on visibility," says Ariel Stein, graduate student in meteorology. "They are also the main component in acid rain." While acid rain episodes have decreased over the past decades, there are still episodes of very acidic rain in the Northeastern United States. Stein and Dr. Dennis Lamb, professor of meteorology, looked at the variety of pollutants that figure into the formation of sulfate particles. These emissions include sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds.

"We wanted to see how controlling the chemicals that oxidize sulfur dioxide affected creation of sulfate aerosols," Stein told attendees today (May 31) at the spring meeting of the American Geophysical Union in Boston. "Simply controlling sulfur dioxide does not always reduce sulfate."

The researchers found that the reactions involved are not linear and that reducing one component does not always reduce the target. They also realize that controlling a specific emission is not always possible. Sulfur dioxide enters the atmosphere when power plants burn sulfur containing coal or oil. Nitrogen oxides come both from power plant emissions and automobiles. A more difficult pollutant to control is volatile organic compounds, half of which are produced by automobiles, with the other half produced by nature.

"In general, in most urban areas, if you want to reduce sulfate, reducing volatile organic compounds is more effective than lowering nitrogen oxides," says Stein. "In rural areas, the opposite seems true, that lowering nitrogen oxides reduc

Contact: A'ndrea Elyse Messer
Penn State

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