A new study conducted by the University of Birmingham has revealed alarming findings about the potential harm of aerosols. The research suggests that commonly encountered hazardous chemicals in aerosols, such as those released during cooking and cleaning, can be “protected” within 3D structures formed by surfactants. These structures allow the harmful chemicals to last longer in the air, leading to increased exposure and potential health risks. This groundbreaking study sheds light on a previously unknown danger that many individuals may be unknowingly exposed to on a daily basis.
Surfactants, also known as “surface-active agents,” are a class of chemical compounds found in various everyday objects like soaps and cleaning products. They serve as emulsifiers, foaming agents, and wetting agents. Additionally, surfactants are naturally released through processes such as sea spray and cooking activities. The research team from the University of Birmingham, in collaboration with the University of Bath and the Central Laser Facility, aimed to understand how surfactants interact with other chemicals in the air and the impact on aerosols’ composition and behavior.
The scientists focused their investigations on one surfactant, oleic acid, commonly found in cooking and marine emissions. They discovered that oleic acid can self-organize into various 3D nanostructures, some of which have a highly viscous, honey-like consistency. These complex structures can significantly delay the breakdown and aging of key chemical components within aerosols. By shielding harmful, reactive materials inside particles and beneath viscous shells, surfactants extend the atmospheric residence times of aerosols.
To understand how surfactants organize themselves and interact with other aerosol components, the researchers conducted a wide range of experimental studies. They investigated self-organization in particles floating in the air, thin films on solid surfaces (such as “window grime” proxies), and aqueous droplets on water surfaces. State-of-the-art techniques such as small-angle X-ray scattering and Raman microscopy enabled the analysis of the structure and chemical behavior of self-organized aerosols at the nanoscale. To complement these experimental findings, the team developed computer models to gain further insights into surfactant behavior in the atmosphere.
The study revealed that when surfactants mix with other aerosol components, they can form different types of 3D structures. This self-organization significantly reduces the reactivity of the chemicals, ultimately increasing their lifetime. As a result, a protective crust may form on the surface of the aerosol particles, shielding hazardous materials from degradation and allowing them to persist in the atmosphere for longer periods. This finding highlights the potential risks associated with prolonged exposure to aerosols containing harmful chemicals.
Professor Christian Pfrang, the leader of the study, expressed concern over the impact of these findings, particularly for individuals who spend most of their time indoors. With modern lifestyles leading to approximately 90% of people’s time spent indoors, understanding the processing of indoor aerosols becomes crucial. Aerosols contribute to air pollution and have known negative effects on human health. The research indicates that harmful chemicals are present in indoor air for longer periods than previously thought, especially after cooking and cleaning activities. Opening windows and ensuring proper ventilation while engaging in these activities is recommended to mitigate exposure risks.
This study opens up new avenues for research on the impact of surfactant arrangements on climate and air quality, both indoors and outdoors. The researchers are now focused on studying how these surfactant structures affect the air we breathe, the quality of our environment, and their implications for human health. To gather real-life data, the team plans to collect aerosol samples from areas where high concentrations of surfactants are expected. This will provide valuable information for assessing the potential risks and developing strategies to protect individuals from harmful aerosols.
The University of Birmingham’s research uncovers a hidden danger associated with aerosols by revealing how surfactants can protect hazardous chemicals, leading to extended atmospheric lifespan and increased exposure. These findings highlight the urgent need to understand the impact of indoor aerosols, given the significant amount of time people spend indoors. Adequate ventilation and precautionary measures such as opening windows while cooking and cleaning are recommended to minimize the risks associated with exposure to harmful aerosols. Moving forward, further research is necessary to fully comprehend the implications for air quality, the environment, and human health, ultimately ensuring the well-being and safety of individuals worldwide.