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Yue Zhang Co-Leading New EPA-Funded Air Quality Study

The research team will study per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in outdoor air.

Jul 21, 2022

Dr. Yue Zhang.
Dr. Yue Zhang.
Dr. Sarah Brooks.
Dr. Sarah Brooks.

Dr. Yue Zhang, assistant professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences, is co-leading an air quality research project recently funded by 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 project will be led by Dr. Jason Surratt, professor in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) Gillings School of Global Public Health. Dr. Sarah Brooks, professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M; Dr. Barbara Turpin, professor and chair of the Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering at UNC, and Dr. Zhenfa Zhang, associate professor in the Gillings School at UNC, are also co-investigators on the study.

“Even though PFAS pollution is now recognized to be a major water issue in North Carolina, less is known about the types, sources and fates of PFAS in N.C. air,” said Surratt. “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 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.

“Currently the most common PFAS measurements are conducted offline, meaning it would take days to weeks to obtain one PFAS concentration in the atmosphere. Texas A&M University will work with UNC and use state-of-the-art instruments to develop new techniques that can measure PFAS down to every minute or less. In addition, we will work with Dr. Brooks and the Center for Atmospheric Chemistry and Environment (CACE) to deploy the Rapid On-site Atmospheric Measurements Van (ROAM -V) to measure the PFAS concentrations in heavily polluted regions. The results will improve understandings in atmospheric PFAS exposure down to the community level and provide data to help policy makers better protect public health.” Zhang said.

The study, “Development of High-Resolution Chemical Ionization Mass Spectrometry Methods for Real-Time Measurement of Emerging Airborne Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS),” is important because it will fill in needed gaps in air-quality measurement capabilities. 

“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.”

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

Read more from the EPA and from UNC.

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