Scientists aim to develop method to detect emerging air pollutants

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Yue Zhang, assistant professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences, is co-leading an air quality research project recently funded by a $799,833 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop new analytical methods that can improve the detection of emerging air pollutants, including per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). 

The research project will be led by Jason Surratt, professor in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) Gillings School of Global Public Health. Co-investigators include Sarah Brooks, professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M; Barbara Turpin, professor and chair of the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering at UNC, and  Zhenfa Zhang, associate professor in the Gillings School at UNC.

“Even though PFAS pollution is now recognized to be a major water issue in North Carolina, less is known about the types, sources and fates of PFAS in North Carolina air,” said Surratt. “We do know that air emissions of PFAS from certain sources in North Carolina can contaminate private wells from precipitation such as rain. The first two years of this new study will be focused on developing and optimizing our new, real-time analytical methods to detect PFAS in air within North Carolina. In the last year of this study, we will sample outdoor air near Chemours in Fayetteville, N.C., in order to understand what types of PFAS might be emitted into North Carolina air and chemically transformed during meteorological transport to downwind communities.”

The research will combine online, high-resolution chemical ionization mass spectrometers with air- and particle-phase sampling techniques to increase understanding of fugitive emissions of PFAS from stationary point sources.

“Currently the most common PFAS measurements are conducted offline, meaning it would take days to weeks to obtain one PFAS concentration in the atmosphere,” Zhang said. “Texas A&M will work with UNC and use state-of-the-art instruments to develop new techniques that can measure PFAS down to every minute or less. In addition, we will work with Dr. Brooks and the Center for Atmospheric Chemistry and Environment (CACE) to deploy the Rapid On-site Atmospheric Measurements Van (ROAM -V) to measure the PFAS concentrations in heavily polluted regions. The results will improve understandings in atmospheric PFAS exposure down to the community level and provide data to help policy makers better protect public health.”

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