Assistant professor of environmental nanoscience Dr. Eric Vejerano (principal investigator) and professor of environmental nanoscience, Dr. Jamie Lead (co-principal investigator) have been awarded a $380K, three-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The researchers, who are affiliated with the environmental health sciences (ENHS) department and the South Carolina SmartState Center for Environmental Nanoscience and Risk (CENR) in the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina, will investigate the impact of engineered nanomaterials during the thermal treatment of waste, such as incineration. They will also look at how these nanomaterials interact with organic pollutants and form environmentally persistent free radicals (EPFRs).
“EPFRs are a new class of environmental contaminants whose nature, formation, behavior, and environmental and health impacts have been studied only in the last decade, so research about them is still in its infancy,” explains Dr. Vejerano, who directs the Environmental Nanoscience Air Quality Lab. “These contaminants are present at sufficiently high levels in diverse environments, including the atmosphere.”
Another feature of EPFRs is their longevity (i.e., persistence). While other types of free radicals in the atmosphere last for less than a second, EPFRs persist for hours or even months—long enough to be transported long distances from their sources, often leading to a regional or even global effect.
Previous research indicates that EPFRs are formed when by-products emitted from thermal treatment or combustion of wastes reacts with transition metal oxides, which are considered a key component to the formation process. Dr. Vejerano and Lead believe that EPFRs may form via other pathways. This means that EPFRs will be more prevalent in the environment, and engineered nanomaterials may be a significant contributor to the formation of EPFRs.
With this study, the researchers expect to learn whether EPFRs can form on non-metallic engineered nanomaterials, rather than exclusively on only one type of particle (i.e., transition metal oxide nanoparticles) as previously assumed. The project will also determine whether EPFRs can form at lower temperatures on transition metal oxide nanoparticles.
“Dr. Vejerano is at the forefront of understanding EPFRs, which he is studying through a NSF-EPSCoR Research Fellowship,” says Dr. Lead, director for CENR. “We expect that our proposed research will transform the current understanding of EPFRs leading the way to future studies investigating their environmental and health impacts.”
“Air pollution from legacy pollution sources, such as the combustion of fossil fuels, is a major cause of lung illnesses such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma,” adds Dr. Geoff Scott, ENHS clinical professor and chair. “By better characterizing the extent and magnitude of EPFRs we will better understand the potential additional exposure burden nanomaterials may add to legacy pollutants better enabling researchers to more fully understand the hazards that nanomaterial may play in air pollution exposure and health.”