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Pollution study finds smoking gun.

Pollution study finds smoking gun

Where there's smoke, there's hydrocarbon. Scientists who took wintertime air samples in Albuquerque, N.M., say most airborne pollutants floated from burning wood, but emissions from motor vehicles were the more potent health hazard.

The study showed that 78 percent of the extractable organic matter, or hydrocarbon, was generated from wood stoves and fireplaces. However, the smoke accounted for only 58 percent of the air's mutagenicity. Pollution from motor vehicle exhaust was three times as mutagenic as wood smoke, the researchers report in the August ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY.

Those two sources accounted for almost all of the samples' mutagenicity, which the scientists measured with the Ames test, a gauge of cancer-causing potential based on a compound's ability to induce genetic mutations in bacteria.

Scientists from the Atmospheric Sciences Research Laboratory and the Health Effects Research Laboratory, both in Research Triangle Park, N.C., conducted the study during January and February of 1985 in a residential area of the city. The Environmental Protection Agency sponsored the study.

Unlike previous research that analyzed pollutants as they were spewed directly from cars or chimneys, the Albuquerque study did not use samples taken at the pollution source. "We took the air people actually breathe," says Charles Lewis, who led the study.

By supporting the findings of previous studies on the volume of wood stove pollution and the unhealthiness of both smoke and exhaust, the new study dampens speculation that pollution farther from its origin might be less harmful.

"Pollutants change their chemical composition when they're exposed to sunlight and other particles in the air," says Lewis. "What this [study] says is that we don't see any effects on the mutagenicity."

Also unique to the study was its use of carbon-14 to reveal the source of pollution, says Robert Stevens of the Atmospheric Sciences Research Laboratory. Normally, scientists trace pollution by looking for some distinguishing component, such as the high potassium content of wood smoke or the lead from burned fossil fuels. While the researchers did use those techniques in the recent study, they confirmed their findings by measuring carbon-14, a naturally occurring isotope of carbon. Carbon-14 is abundant in firewood but almost nonexistent in fossil fuels.

Later this year, the group plans to publish similar studies -- with similar results, they say -- done in Raleigh, N.C., and Boise, Idaho.
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Title Annotation:air pollution research
Author:Beil, Laura
Publication:Science News
Date:Aug 13, 1988
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