Atmospheric chemistry discovery could help Indian cities clear away the haze

A new study suggests that high levels of chloride from industry and burning plastic waste could be responsible for enhanced haze and fog formation in Delhi and Chennai,1 leading to around half the reduced visibility in India’s capital city and…

A new study suggests that high levels of chloride from industry and burning plastic waste could be responsible for enhanced haze and fog formation in Delhi and Chennai,1 leading to around half the reduced visibility in India’s capital city and having serious implications for health and the economy. The results could help researchers understand why some polluted regions are more prone to smog and cloud than others.

Many cities in India are affected by pollution, with air quality being particularly bad in winter. Particulate matter – a mixture of suspended solid and liquid particles – is a key atmospheric contaminant that affects millions of people across the country. ‘The low visibility associated with haze and fog can cause air traffic delays and increase motor vehicle accidents,’ notes Pengfei Liu, an atmospheric chemist at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the US, who led the study together with Sachin Gunthe of the Indian Institute of Technology Madras. ‘The severe air pollution also causes increases in cardiovascular, respiratory and neurological diseases,’ he adds. ‘We can’t tackle this air pollution problem unless we understand the chemical mechanism behind it.’ It is unclear why Delhi is more affected by haze and fog than other polluted Asian cities, although a large fraction of its particulate matter is primary organic matter. Now, the international team may have found the answer. ‘We determined the chemical composition of atmospheric fine particles in Indian cities and observed unexpectedly high concentrations of chloride,’ Liu says. The team monitored the mass and chemical composition of particulate matter smaller than 1µm in Delhi and Chennai in real time and then performed thermodynamic modelling to uncover the role of chloride in haze and fog formation. ‘They demonstrated that particulate matter grows very fast due to co-condensation of HCl, ammonia and water,’ explains Manabu Shiraiwa, a researcher at the University of California, Irvine, in the US, who was not involved in the study. He points out that India has a unique environment, characterised by high ammonia release from agriculture and significant chlorine emissions due to burning waste. Winter mornings in Delhi are usually cold and humid, offering the ideal conditions for the process to take place. ‘Gas-phase HCl emitted from plastic-containing waste burning and industrial processes can dissolve in aerosol water,’ explains Liu. Ammonia can then react with HCl to form ammonium chloride, stabilising chloride in the particle phase, he adds. ‘This particle-phase chloride can absorb even more water from air, leading to a quick growth of the aerosol particles into haze and fog droplets. We estimate that this mechanism can contribute more than 50% of the visibility deterioration in Delhi.’ Yafang Cheng from the Max-Planck Institute for Chemistry in Germany believes that the discovery will help to develop more locally tailored strategies. ‘The identified high chloride concentration is a special characteristic of air pollution in India, different from other megacities such as Beijing,’ she says. ‘This finding has very important implications for air-pollution management in India. Besides learning from examples in other places of the world, India may now develop its own, more precise and cost-effective solution against its severe haze pollution, for example, targeting the control of chlorine emissions.’ReferencesSS Gunthe et al, Nat. Geo., 2020, DOI: 10.1038/s41561-020-00677-x Related articlesNewsChemists welcome India’s new education policy’s focus on interdisciplinary learning2020-09-04T10:23:00ZPolicy wins backing from academics but concerns remain around funding and implementationBusinessStyrene vapour leak in India kills 122020-05-12T09:58:00ZHundreds of locals hospitalised and evacuated to escape discharge from LG Polymers plantNewsDelhi’s air pollution headaches a microcosm of India’s own problems2018-01-22T14:11:00ZMulti-pronged approach needed to bring smog under control More NewsBusinessBiggest venture yet of any pharma company into cannabis2021-02-05T15:00:00ZJazz Pharmaceuticals buys cannabinoid therapeutic firm for $7.2 billion, inheriting first plant-derived cannabinoid medicine ever approved by FDANewsDozens of publishers oppose key provision in open access Plan S2021-02-05T09:30:00ZOver 50 publishers fear open access publishing initiative’s ‘Rights Retention’ strategy could harm journal revenue and article qualityResearchHalf the world’s supply of element 99 used to reveal its chemical secrets2021-02-04T14:30:00ZScientists explore einsteinium’s unusual chemistry using less than 200 nanograms of the precious and highly radioactive material SubscribeAdvertiseTopicsIssuesContributors Our mission News and events Campaigns Awards and funding Global challenges Support our work © Royal Society of Chemistry Registered charity number: 207890 Site powered by Webvision Cloud