Investigation of Organic Nitrogen in Atmospheric Aerosols

Lead Research Organisation: University of York
Department Name: Chemistry


Organic nitrogen (ON) is ubiquitous in the atmosphere. Atmospheric particles typically have high concentrations of nitrogen and are a significant source of fixed nitrogen to the environment (though deposition processes), which may have an adverse impact on terrestrial and aquatic ecosystem. While the sources, formation and composition of oxygenated organics in the atmosphere have been extensively studied in recent years, ON has not received the same attention. Studies of atmospherically relevant processes (such as photo-chemical transformations) have been carried out on individual ON compounds but these studies are fundamentally limited since the bulk of ON in atmospheric particles is not characterized. The composition of ON within a particle may have an effect on its properties (such as hygroscopicity, toxicity and bio-availability) which will also change as the particle ages during long-range transport and may ultimately lead to the formation of humic-like substances. Studies have shown that when aqueous extracts of bulk ON from atmospheric aerosols were exposed to simulated sunlight and ozone, a significant portion of the ON was transformed into ammonium, nitrate and oxides of nitrogen. Atmospheric particles have been linked to increased mortality in the human population and a number of ON species are implicated in the toxicity of aerosols (e.g. nitrogentated polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, quinolines, nitroso-amines). The aim of this project is to build a novel, high resolution ON-Analyser capable of measuring the semi-volatile ON composition of atmospheric aerosols, for which there is currently very little known. It is based on a high resolution chromatographic technique (comprehensive two-dimensional gas chromatography - GCXGC) which is ideally suited to separating highly complex mixtures. This will be coupled to a highly selective nitrogen chemiluminescence detector, which provides a response for organic compounds containing nitrogen only. This removes interferences from the complex organic background found in aerosols. Aerosols will be samples onto filters and the ON content extracted using an Aerosol Thermal Desorption Injector. This novel instrument will be used to investigate the composition of ON species in aerosol in different environments, reflecting increasing photo-chemical age, from a polluted city centre roadside location (York) to a clean coastal rural site (Weybourne). Due to the complexity of the real atmosphere, linking the initial species emitted to the atmosphere to their reaction products in aerosol can be difficult. We will use the ON-Analyser to investigate the composition of ON in secondary organic aerosol formed in smog chamber simulations, allowing a direct link between pre-cursors and products. The outcomes of this project will increase our understanding of the composition, formation and transformation of organic nitrogen species in the atmosphere, providing valuable information across a range of disciplines including air quality, climate change and ecology.


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Description This project developed a new instrument to analyse organic nitrogen content of atmospheric aerosols. In the last year, this method has been extended to determine the occurrence of carinogenic nitrogen compounds in house dust contaminated with tobacco smoke and to calculate the potential cancer risk from this exposure for non-smokers. we found that the house dust in almost all house was contaminated with toxic nitrosamines and the levels were above recommended cancer risk guidelines particularly for children.
Exploitation Route The method has been used to study the levels of carcinogenic compounds in atmospheric aerosols in London, to look at potential health implications of exposure to ambient particles. We found that aerosols in London contain significant lveles of toxic nitrosamines, and that exposure levels exceed guidelines after only 1-2 hours outside everyday.
Sectors Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice

Description The recent work on the cancer risk of exposure to thirdhand tobacco smoke has the potential to lead to significant public health improvements through education of parents to the risks of this previously unrecognised route of exposure. It has appeared in the British Medical Journal Better Health website. It was also featured in national newspapers and local TV. This work has been cited in recent policy statements from the American Academy of Pediatrics (2016) and the German Academy for Pediatrics and Adolescent Health (Herrmann et al., 2016).
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Environment,Healthcare
Impact Types Societal

Description Citation in Demand for a ban on smoking in cars with children: Statement of the Child Protection Committee of the German Academy for Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine (status 25 January 2016)
Geographic Reach Europe 
Policy Influence Type Citation in other policy documents
Guideline Title Guidance for the clinical management of thirdhand smoke exposure in the child health care setting
Description Citation in Guidance for the clinical management of thirdhand smoke exposure in the child health care setting
Geographic Reach North America 
Policy Influence Type Citation in clinical guidelines
Description Citation in Policy Statement on Protecting children from tobacco, nicotine, and tobacco smoke. , This technical report serves to provide the evidence base for the American Academy of Pediatrics' policy statements "Clinical Practice Policy to Protect Children From Tobacco, Nicotine, and Tobacco Smoke" and "Public Policy to Protect Children From Tobacco, Nicotine, and Tobacco Smoke."
Geographic Reach North America 
Policy Influence Type Citation in other policy documents
Description Atmospheric Pollution & Human Health in a Chinese Megacity (APHH China)
Amount £3,250,000 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/N007190/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2016 
End 12/2019
Description Norwegian CLIMIT program
Amount kr 4,500,000 (NOK)
Funding ID 244055 
Organisation Research Council of Norway 
Sector Public
Country Norway
Start 01/2015 
End 12/2017
Description Internation Society for Exposure ScienceAnnual Meeting: Invited talk 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Invited talk at the International Society for Exposure science meeting in Nevade, USA. Talk was within a session devoted to third hand tobacco smoke and its impact on humans.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description Interview for national news 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Interviews with a number of newspapers and radio resulting in print and online articles. Appearance on ITV Calender news

16/07/2014. Minster FM. Radio interview
16/07/2014. WTOP radio, Washington, USA. Radio Interview
16/07/2014. BBC radio York. Radio Interview
17/07/2014. PlanetEarth online, interview. (no longer available)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015