Identifying harmful pollutants in city air

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Watch Vizuete’s March 2010 Innovation Lab Presentation, “Identifying harmful air pollutants using an integrated chemical and biological approach.”

The Challenge

Air pollution is linked to tens of thousands of deaths each year. Scientists need to help identify and prioritize the pollutants that are responsible for health effects not only individually, but their effect in combination with each other. Furthermore, studies in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health’s rooftop environment chamber, where air quality is examined, have shown that pollutants are 5-10 times more harmful when aged with sunlight.

The Solution

  • Apply new technology to study air pollution and lung cell damage
  • Work in our laboratory smog chambers and ultimately in the field
  • Develop a portable device to be made available to others

Results and Impact


  • Produced a working prototype of a field-deployable version of a unique human lung cell air sampling system
  • Generated a new version of improved air quality models to predict species causing observed effects
  • Identified toxic components of sunlight exposed emissions
  • Found inflammation and cell damage in lung cells
  • Published news articles such as: “Air Pollution Test Might Miss Toxicity” and “A matter of particulates”

Potential Impact

  • Results of work could change how air pollutants are regulated
  • Device will help determine whether a mix of pollutants could present a significant health risk
  • Improve risk assessment models
  • Provide more cost-effective emission control strategies

What’s Next

  • Continue commercialization of device
  • Create portable version of device
  • Continue researching health effects on additional tissue such as skin cells





William Vizuete, PhD, associate professor of environmental sciences and engineering, UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, led the GIL team which included scientists from the UNC School of Medicine.

Partners include: UNC School of Medicine; UNC Center for Environmental Medicine, Asthma and Lung Biology; UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering; N.C. Dept. of Environmental and Natural Resources, the EPA; MatTek Corporation and other collaborators.




Last updated August 30, 2012