July 3, 2006

Leading-edge air quality research centre to be based at U of T

The University of Toronto has been chosen as the home for a new leading-edge interdisciplinary centre for research on urban air quality and its effects on human health and climate. The new Southern Ontario Centre for Atmospheric Aerosol Research (SOCAAR) will provide a setting for novel investigation of the factors contributing to poor air quality and the resulting impacts on human health. Unique in Canada, SOCAAR will bring together medical personnel, atmospheric chemists and environmental engineers, providing them state-of-the-art facilities to address the impact of urban particulates on people and the environment.

It is now clear that significant health effects are linked to human exposure to the mix of gaseous and particulate pollutants in urban air. Although the science associated with gaseous pollutants is relatively well established, there are significant outstanding uncertainties associated with particulates that SOCAAR will address. Among these are:

*the physiologic mechanisms that explain the observed correlations between particulate matter (PM) and human health;

*the key components or sources of PM associated with these health effects;

*the degree to which particulates are chemically modified in urban environments (possibly leading to more toxic forms);

*the composition of urban PM and whether its composition can be used to determine its origins; and

*the role of large urban areas as a source of PM affecting climate and cloud formation.

By examining these issues, SOCCAR will help develop the scientific understanding essential for developing a sound public policy for Canadian environmental health guidelines and regulations. This work will be supported by the acquisition of a new generation of instruments for particle analysis and isolation. This, together with existing equipment, will make SOCAAR one of the world's premier centres for detailed studies of urban aerosols. The technology will include:

*an Aerosol Time-of-Flight Laser Mass Spectrometer (ATOFMS). This new instrument, the only one in Canada, will allow for rapid determination of the size and composition of individual aerosol particles. The ATOFMS will be used to detect particle sources in Southern Ontario and to unravel the chemical and meteorological mechanisms producing elevated particle concentrations.

*an Aerosol Mass Spectrometer (AMS), another class of mass spectrometer able to detect the chemical composition of atmospheric particles in real time. The AMS is well suited to determining the role of urban air photochemistry in particle composition. It will be used in the laboratory to study the chemical transformations of aerosol particles, such as those that form toxic compounds, and for field studies. This will be only the second AMS instrument in the world used in laboratory studies and SOCAAR will be the only centre in the world with the dual complementary capabilities of an ATOFMS and AMS.

*a Concentrated Ambient Particulate Exposure Facility (CAPEF). A unique particle concentrating system for human exposure studies will be used to assess the acute health effects of particle inhalation under controlled conditions. The CAPEF will consist of three concentrators that fractionate and concentrate particles into the ultra-fine, fine and coarse size modes. The new facility will enable the researchers to become world leaders in assessing mechanisms for physiological responses, potential synergistic effects of gaseous pollutants, and responses in susceptible populations.

SOCAAR's infrastructure will be housed in renovated facilities on the downtown campus of the University of Toronto. SOCAAR will also have a unique mobile laboratory to allow deployment of its advanced instrumentation for field sampling (not previously possible) at different locations throughout southern Ontario.

Creation of the Centre has been made possible through $3 million in seed funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI), together with partners such as Environment Canada, the Ontario Ministry of Environment and numerous instrument suppliers. Additional funding from the Ontario Innovation Trust is anticipated.

The Centre will be directed by professor Greg Evans from U of T's department of chemical engineering and applied chemistry. More information is available from Greg Evans, E-mail evansg@chem-eng.utoronto.ca.

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