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Understanding the movement of pollutants through the atmosphere

Scientists are studying how the air masses transport pollutants and the influence of meteorological factors in pollutant dispersion, and their effects on ecosystems and living organisms. New research shows that there is a transcontinental transfer of pollutants between the North of America and Europe.

Redon Lake. Image: Marc Sala.It is known that the PBDE’s, flame retardants used in many industrial products, are transported for long distances through the atmosphere and can arrive to very remote places. It is also known that living organisms accumulate these pollutants which can have negative effects on their endocrine system.

Now, a research led by scientists at the Instituto de Diagnósi Ambiental i Estudis de l’Aigua (IDAEA-CSIC) has studied the presence of flame retardants in samples of rain and snow. The samples were collected over a period of two years (2004-2006). The samples were taken in four remote mountain regions of Europe: Lake Redon (the Pyrenees, Catalonia), Gossenköllesee (Alps, Austria); Lochnagar (Grampian Mountains, Scotland); and Skalnate (Tatras, Slovakia).

The particularity of this new study, published in the Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics  magazine, is that samples were taken at the same moment. This has enabled the discovery of the pollution that arrives through the atmosphere at every moment, how the movement of pollutants has changed over the two years and, even, where the pollutants come from.

The study has enabled the discovery of the pollution that arrives through the atmosphere at every moment

The research has been led by Joan Grimalt, research professor at the IDAEA-CSIC, and Pilar Fernández, scientists at the IDAEA-CSIC. Pilar Fernandez explains: “previous works analyzed snow samples from remote places in the mountain and demonstrated the presence of flame retardants. But the samples were of snow that had accumulated over an undetermined time period. Now, as samples are collected at the same moment, research makes it possible to see the PBDE concentration which is transported through the atmosphere in the same moment”.

Joan Grimalt maintains that “selected places are very remote, which enable us to see the background levels of pollution that precipitate on Europe as a consequence of the industrial activities in Europe and on the other continents”. In the other European regions, he points out, “we will find higher concentrations than this background level”:

have seen a correlation between the pollutants deposition with the mass of winds that were circulating when the samples were taken and, therefore, discovering  the source of pollution. In the case of Lochnagar and Redon Lake, points out Pilar Fernandez, “we have seen that the atmospheric deposition of flame retardants increases when North Atlantic air masses were entering Europe, which means that the flame retardants from the samples must have come from North America”

At Skalnate, and to a lower extent in Redon Lake, scientists have seen that PBDE concentration arises when air masses from Central Europe circulate. The highest concentrations happened when temperatures were higher and when there was more deposition of rain and particles. Increases of PBDE in Lochnagar samples when the air masses circulating came from the United Kingdom have also been found.

This is the first study to show that there is a transcontinental transfer of pollutants between the North of America and Europe

“This is the first study to show that there is a transcontinental transfer of pollutants between the North of America and Europe, and that this transfer supposes, in the case of PBDE, a higher input than the background pollution that happens in Europe as a consequence of the industrial use of these compounds. This transfer is consistent with the predominance of anti-trend winds at a latitude of 35-50º North and with the wide use of these compounds in some countries in North America”, concludes Grimalt.

Polybrominated diphenyl ethers, known as PBDE's, have been used as a flame retardant in many commercial products such as clothes, electronics, furniture or textile coating, since the 70’s. Later it was discovered that PBDE’s are persistent pollutants and accumulate in animals, alter their endocrine system and cause negative effects on the thyroid gland and reproduction. PBDE’s were banned in the USA in 2004 and in Europe between 2004 and 2013. Nevertheless, products manufactured in previous years are still on the market and release PBDE's to the environment.

 

Arellano, L., Fernández, P., López, J. F., Rose, N. L., Nickus, U., Thies, H., Stuchlik, E., Camarero, L., Catalan, J., and Grimalt, J. O.: Atmospheric deposition of polybromodiphenyl ethers in remote mountain regions of Europe, Atmos. Chem. Phys., 14, 4441-4457, doi:10.5194/acp-14-4441-2014, 2014.