EMPIR project has developed a new instrument for simulating air pollution

Smog covering a city in the morning

Linking the chemical composition of inhaled air pollutants to effects on human health has now been made easier through the work of an EMPIR project

Air pollution can cause severe health effects including respiratory problems, cardiovascular diseases, cancer and dementia. To prevent the worst effects, the EU has developed an extensive body of legislation which establishes standards and objectives for a number of pollutants in air.

Airborne particulate matter (PM) with diameters of 2.5 μm (PM 2.5) or less have been linked to 430,000 premature deaths annually with an associated economic cost of €1.4tn. Measurements used to assess the toxicity of these particles are currently only based on size and concentration and, whilst useful, these are not the most informative metric to characterise the potential disparate detrimental health effects reported.



What is not captured by such measurements is information regarding the composition and chemical heterogeneity of these particles. Current standards also fail to relate to the taxological contributions of ultrafine particles (<100 nm), which are of negligible mass. 

The differing size and composition of particles can have different effects on human health. In order to assess this, well-defined reference aerosols that simulate real pollution in ambient air were needed. 

This has now been achieved by the EMPIR project Measurements for mitigating adverse health effects from atmospheric particulate pollutants (AeroTox,18HLT02). Due to finish in 2022 the project has developed a new portable oxidation flow reactor, also known as an ‘Organic Coating Unit’ (OCU).This device can be linked to various soot generators to produce a wide range of well-defined "fresh" and "aged" combustion aerosols, applicable in the field of toxicology, health, atmospheric sciences and the calibration of air-quality monitoring instruments.

The new reactor offers many advantages over larger smog chambers including reaction times in the order of seconds as opposed to days, high flexibility in tuning the particle properties, compactness and standardisation potential.

Validated by the Swiss National Metrology Institute METAS the chamber has  been commercialised by project partner The University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland (FHNW).

As well as the new instrument the project has also made advances in novel test methods to evaluate pollution effects at the cell-level, including applying machine learning for image-analysis, cell exposure methods that mimic particulate inhalation and novel, more realistic lung models.

Konstantina Vasilatou, who coordinates this project has said about the new instrument:

The new instrument, known as an Organic Coating Unit, is an all-in-one device, combining an aerosol humidifier, an automated precursor dosing system and an oxidation flow reactor in a single unit. The device is equipped with a graphical user interface (GUI) running on a microcomputer and a 7-inch touchscreen. All parameters relevant for the measurements are continuously monitored by the control electronics and logged by the microcomputer, making the device very user friendly”.

The improved understanding of the role of micro-sized air pollutants in disease is essential in order to develop effective public health measures and reduce the exposure of the population to the most harmful components of ambient particulate matter.

This EMPIR project is co-funded by the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme and the EMPIR Participating States.

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