Reporter 403, 2 June 1997

The average adult breathes 13,000 litres of air each day. Our atmosphere is made up of several gases, but its composition – and quality – is changing due to factors such as industrial emissions and global warming. Researchers in the School of Chemistry are working towards an understanding of what affects the air we breathe.

A major part of this research involves making comparisons. Along with other universities such as Bristol, Cambridge and UMIST, Leeds atmospheric scientists are studying remote areas to work out a baseline of what clean air actually is. The Leeds group is concentrating on the Mace Head area north of Galway in Ireland. Just as natural background radiation exists there is also a natural level of ozone in the air. By building an image of natural air content a computer model will be developed so the scientists can model the effects of rises in gas levels.

Research is directed at the troposphere – the first few kilometres of the earth's atmosphere which directly affects us. While ozone in the atmosphere is beneficial in filtering UV rays a build-up in the troposphere exposes us to an irritant which can cause severe breathing problems.

The group, headed by Professor Mike Pilling, return from Ireland in June when they will use a mobile unit to study air content in Leeds. Black smoke pumped out of diesel engines contains carcinogenic particles which are absorbed through the lungs. As they are not breathed out again they concentrate in the body. The unit will examine carbon monoxide, ozone and nitrogen oxide levels in the urban environment.

They have also developed technology to analyse air samples in a method similar to chromatography. Funding has been granted by the NERC to add the machine to Hercules - the Met Office's aeroplane which takes dozens of measurements about the environment.

Information gathered by this collaborative work, funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, will be used by the Department of the Environment. The Montreal Protocol – a UN agreement to reduce CFC emissions – makes monitoring of air quality essential.

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