May 18, 2022

Researchers in the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health have been awarded a $799,833 grant from the United States 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 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.

Dr. Jason Surratt

Dr. Jason Surratt

“Even though PFAS pollution is now recognized to be a major water issue here in North Carolina, less is known about the types, sources and fates of PFAS in N.C. air,” said Jason Surratt, PhD, principal investigator and professor of environmental sciences and engineering. “We do know that air emissions of PFAS from certain sources in N.C. 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 N.C. 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 N.C. air and chemically transformed during meteorological transport to downwind communities.”

The study, “Development of High-Resolution Chemical Ionization Mass Spectrometry Methods for Real-Time Measurement of Emerging Airborne Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS),” will be led by a team of researchers that includes Surratt, Profesor and Chair Barbara Turpin, PhD, and Associate Professor Zhenfa Zhang, PhD, from the Gillings School; and Yue Zhang, PhD, and Sarah Brooks, PhD, from Texas A&M University.

This award is part of more than $4.7M in research grants to seven institutions for research to advance measurement and monitoring methods for air toxics and contaminants of emerging concern in the atmosphere.

“While we have made great strides in reducing air pollution, there is still more work to be done to protect public health,” said Maureen Gwinn, principal deputy assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Research and Development. “This research will improve our ability to measure air contaminants and find better strategies for reducing them in the environment.”

Hazardous air pollutants (HAPs), often referred to as air toxics, are a subset of air pollutants known to cause cancer or other serious health effects. There is extensive evidence that low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionally exposed to air toxics.

The following universities are also receiving grants:

  • New York University, New York City, N.Y., to develop and validate novel passive sampling designs that can be used to measure a diverse suite of air toxics and contaminants of emerging concern at low detection limits, and to deploy them in north Brooklyn to demonstrate their use in addressing concerns about environmental justice.
  • North Carolina State University, Raleigh, N.C., to design and build a mobile platform to quantify and characterize emissions of sub-10 nanometer particles, which are suspected to contribute greatly to the toxicity of particulate matter.
  • University of California Davis, Davis, Calif., to develop and test a moderate-cost, portable, small, low-power instrument for near real-time speciation and quantification of volatile organic compounds, including hazardous air pollutants; deploy instrument prototype to communities facing environmental injustices; and work with these communities to understand the results and translate them into actions.
  • University of California Los Angeles, Los Angeles, Calif., to develop an open-source reference instrument and methodology for the operation, validation, and quality assurance and quality control of optical remote sensing monitoring of several air toxics.
  • University of California San Diego, San Diego, Calif., to improve online detection and quantification of several understudied toxic plastic additives of emerging concern in atmospheric particles in a coastal marine environment.
  • Virginia Polytech Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Va., to develop, characterize, and demonstrate a low-cost technique for measuring organic hazardous air pollutants.

Read the full press release from EPA.

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