Commission uses high tech measurements to tackle urban air pollution

January 31, 2003

Brussels, 30 January 2003

The European Commission's Joint Research Centre (JRC) has launched an innovative joint pilot study together with regional Italian environmental protection agency Agenzia Regionale per la Protezione dell'Ambiente (ARPA) Lombardia to measure urban air pollution in Milan in January and February 2003. This study will determine the source of harmful pollutants and is the first to use the latest JRC technology the mass-spectrometer-based Single Particle Analysis and Sizing System (SPASS). By enabling full identification and measurement of different types of air pollution, such as traffic, heating and factories, EU environmental research aims to achieve acceptable air quality levels throughout Europe.

"Air pollution in our cities requires urgent action. We need more environmental research," said European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin. "We need to detect and measure air pollution, and closely monitor changes in pollution patterns. The aim is to help national and regional authorities better analyse the problem, identify health hazards related to dangerous substances in the air, devise and implement appropriate strategies to counter this phenomenon in a cost-effective way, with the help of EU authorities."

Many large European cities suffer severe air pollution during the winter caused by the presence of particles (PM, particulate matter). A recent study carried out by the JRC demonstrated that levels of PM pollution in northern Italy are among the highest in Europe. The JRC is implementing a new approach that provides important evidence about individual particles, including potential origin, to help local and national authorities throughout the EU tackle such pollution.

SPASS is able to identify and simultaneously provide a positive and negative ion spectrum for each particle. It then uses this information in specifically developed statistical programs to quantify each source's contribution to the concentration of particulate matter in the atmosphere. These sources include traffic, domestic heating and industry. This will greatly increase scientific knowledge about the source of harmful air pollutants and enable more cost-efficient control measures, as defined in the Commission's Clean Air For Europe (CAFÉ) Programme.

Particulate Matter pollution posing dangers to health and climate

Concentrations of PM10 particulate matter (the mass of all particles and droplets floating in the atmosphere that have a diameter of less than 10 µm or micro-metres, 10-6 m or one per million) often exceed health standards agreed by the European Commission. These standards set a maximum of 50 µg/m 3 (micro-grams per cubic metre) of PM10 averaged over 24 hours, or 40 µg/m 3 averaged over a year.

High levels of PM10 lead to pulmonary and cardiovascular problems. Resolving these problems has already led to drastic and costly measures such as banning traffic in cities during certain periods of the day or week.

The same particulate matter that is found in urban areas spreads through the atmosphere and becomes a regional and even a global phenomenon. It is thought to have an important cooling effect, contrary to the warming effect of greenhouse gasses. This link between local air pollution and global climate change is a major research area in the Commission's present Research Framework Programme and at the JRC.

Complex chemical composition

PM10 particles have complex chemical compositions, reflecting a variety of sources. Urban PM10 contains at least seven broad classes of chemicals: sulphates, nitrates, ammonia, elemental carbon, organic carbon, minerals and salts. Emissions from traffic typically result in particles composed of organic matter and nitrates, domestic heating and industrial activities in sulphates, building work results in mineral dust and agriculture in ammonium. At present it is unknown which compound has the most detrimental effect on health.

Characterising individual particles

One line of JRC research is the development of instrumentation that allows detailed physical and chemical characterisation of individual particles. By characterising particles at source including car exhausts, factory chimneys and domestic heating installations and in the urban atmosphere, the contribution of each source to urban PM10 can be assessed.

In addition to deploying SPASS for the first time in Milan, the JRC is also applying more conventional analytical methods and working with instrumentation used by ARPA. Measurements will be performed at Bresso airport, in North Milan, to characterise in detail the urban background aerosol, and in a tunnel beneath Milan Central Station, to characterise particulate matter emitted by traffic.

These measurements will provide a full chemical characterisation of urban PM10, allow the contribution of traffic to PM10 to be quantified, and indicate the importance of other sources to urban pollution.

Editorial notes

The JRC has extensive experience in air pollution research. It operates the European Reference Laboratory of Air Pollution (ERLAP) to provide scientific and technical support for preparing and implementing EU air quality directives and to assist Commission services in their air pollution control commitments. The JRC collaborates with the Association of National Air Quality Reference laboratories and provides general co-ordination of harmonised air quality measurements around Europe as well working with Japanese and American experts on common world-wide policies.

SPASS is a mass spectrometer in which particles from the atmosphere are introduced via a series of nozzles. The particles are sized individually and then split and ionised, one by one, using an intense laser pulse. Positive and negative ions are subsequently analysed by the mass spectrometer to provide detailed information of the chemical composition of each particle. This high-technology device is mounted on trucks.

The study of urban air in Milan complements a measurement campaign during summer 2002 on Tenerife, Spain, where dust from the Sahara was studied. They are both part of the JRC's co-ordinated research programme on particulate matter. Both studies will give new insights into the characteristics of particles, and about their contribution to local health problems and global climate change.

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DN: IP/03/146 Date: 30/01/2003

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