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Atmospheric Modeling and Analysis Research

Research in Action

Researchers Examine Nonaparticles' Impact on Fuel Emissions and Air Pollution

Issue

Particulate matter, or PM — a major component of air pollution — has many sources. It can originate from natural processes, like forest fires and wind erosion, and from human activities, like agricultural practices, smokestacks, construction, and car emissions.  Exposure to air with high levels of PM can result in respiratory health problems and depressed cardio-vascular function.

Private industry has developed several fuel additives designed to decrease the amount of PM in diesel exhaust and increase fuel efficiency. Several of these use a nanoparticle called cerium oxide as their active ingredient. Currently, little is known about the impact of cerium oxide nanoparticles on human health and the environment. To assess this, especially in environments near roadways where people may face higher levels of exposure, scientists need to understand how these nanoparticles affect motor vehicle exhaust and air quality, and how they behave in environments near roadways.

Action

EPA scientists are employing a model to examine how cerium oxide changes fuel emissions — including the size and composition of particles and gases emitted. The model predictions are used to understand data collected from a 2012 field study in England where EPA scientists worked with colleagues from the U.K. to sample air in areas where cerium oxide-based fuel additives are being used in diesel buses. Researchers are also looking at how these particles move from roadways to areas near roads where people may live and work.

Results and Impacts

To help regional modelers, exposure scientists, and policymakers better understand the potential environmental and human health impacts of cerium oxide additive use in diesel fuel, researchers combined ambient observations and modeling to determine the magnitude, size, and atmospheric evolution of cerium-containing particles.

While some previous results suggest that the human health risks associated with cerium oxide nanoparticles in the ambient atmosphere are likely to be low, acceptable levels of cerium in the atmosphere — which is likely a function of particle size — is still uncertain. This is because environmental and human health toxicity studies do not always use cerium particles with a size distribution representative of laboratory and ambient measurements. Additionally, roadside modeling simulations indicated that for regional scale air quality considerations, the use of a cerium oxide additive may be beneficial due to the improved fuel economy and reduced emissions of exhaust particles.

To determine an acceptable ambient level of atmospheric cerium concentrations, future exposure studies should determine impacts as a function of size and composition, in addition to the mass concentration.

 

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