Articles | Volume 12, issue 24
Research article
21 Dec 2012
Research article |  | 21 Dec 2012

Gaseous VOCs rapidly modify particulate matter and its biological effects – Part 1: Simple VOCs and model PM

S. Ebersviller, K. Lichtveld, K. G. Sexton, J. Zavala, Y.-H. Lin, I. Jaspers, and H. E. Jeffries

Abstract. This is the first of a three-part study designed to demonstrate dynamic entanglements among gaseous organic compounds (VOC), particulate matter (PM), and their subsequent potential biological effects. We study these entanglements in increasingly complex VOC and PM mixtures in urban-like conditions in a large outdoor chamber. To the traditional chemical and physical characterizations of gas and PM, we added new measurements of biological effects, using cultured human lung cells as model indicators. These biological effects are assessed here as increases in cellular damage or expressed irritation (i.e., cellular toxic effects) from cells exposed to chamber air relative to cells exposed to clean air. The exposure systems permit virtually gas-only- or PM-only-exposures from the same air stream containing both gases and PM in equilibria, i.e., there are no extractive operations prior to cell exposure.

Our simple experiments in this part of the study were designed to eliminate many competing atmospheric processes to reduce ambiguity in our results. Simple volatile and semi-volatile organic gases that have inherent cellular toxic properties were tested individually for biological effect in the dark (at constant humidity). Airborne mixtures were then created with each compound to which we added PM that has no inherent cellular toxic properties for another cellular exposure. Acrolein and p-tolualdehyde were used as model VOCs and mineral oil aerosol (MOA) was selected as a surrogate for organic-containing PM. MOA is appropriately complex in composition to represent ambient PM, and exhibits no inherent cellular toxic effects and thus did not contribute any biological detrimental effects on its own.

Chemical measurements, combined with the responses of our biological exposures, clearly demonstrate that gas-phase pollutants can modify the composition of PM (and its resulting detrimental effects on lung cells). We observed that, even if the gas-phase pollutants are not considered likely to partition to the condensed phase, the VOC-modified-PM showed significantly more damage and inflammation to lung cells than did the original PM. Because gases and PM are transported and deposited differently within the atmosphere and the lungs, these results have significant consequences for a wide range of people. For example, current US policies for research and regulation of PM do not recognize this "effect modification" phenomena (NAS, 2004).

These results present an unambiguous demonstration that – even in these simple mixtures – physical and thermal interactions alone can cause a modification of the distribution of species among the phases of airborne pollution mixtures that can result in a non-toxic phase becoming toxic due to atmospheric thermal processes only. Subsequent work (described in companion papers) extends the simple results reported here to systems with photochemical transformations of complex urban mixtures and to systems with diesel exhaust produced by different fuels.

Final-revised paper