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From the Past to the Future: Measuring Air Pollution in Asia and the Pacific Using Nuclear Techniques

Air sampling in Palangka Raya, Borneo, Indonesia

Air sampling in Palangka Raya, Borneo, Indonesia. (Photo: M. Santoso/BATAN)

For over a decade, scientists in Asia and the Pacific have been using nuclear techniques to identify the source and level of pollution in the air – and the data collected over the years can now inform policymaking.

“Policymakers and regulatory agents can now use the findings to better shape and implement the right measures to fight air pollution in our country,” said Lakmali Handagiripathira, representing Sri Lanka’s Atomic Energy Board at an IAEA workshop this month in Rotoura, New Zealand, where scientists from 15 participating countries discussed the next steps.

Under the decade-long project, scientists received equipment, training and guidance from the IAEA to collect, analyse, and classify the airborne particulate matter – particles like dust or smoke that are small enough to be suspended in the atmosphere.

Australia, Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, New Zealand, Pakistan, Philippines, Republic of Korea, Sri Lanka and Viet Nam are participating in the joint project. In the case of China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia and the Philippines, the results have already influenced decisions to revise and update national air quality regulations.

The two databases developed offer unique information on both the specific elements that compose the air particulate matter and their concentrations, and on the source and geographic location of the origin of the pollution. This can be forest fires, volcanic activity, cars or industry.

“Our work aims to answer three very important questions: how much pollution is there, from what source, and from where in the world,” said Preciosa Corazon Pabroa, Supervising Science Research Specialist at the Philippine Nuclear Research Institute of the Department of Science and Technology. “Through the use of nuclear and related techniques, these questions can be answered.”

In the Philippines, traffic was found to be a major source of air pollution. The findings showed that addressing the traffic problem could lead to less pollution, healthier air and contribute to the mitigation of climate change, said Pabroa.

No borders

Air pollution is not a local issue, but rather a transboundary challenge. According to Gashaw Wolde, Programme Management Officer at the IAEA, air pollution is being increasingly recognized in Asia and the Pacific as a serious problem that threatens people’s health, and one that does not affect one country alone.

Countries in the region such as New Zealand and Australia, which have advanced technical capacities to measure air pollution, have been able to share their expertise with other countries in the region through the IAEA.

Nuclear analytical techniques used include particle induced X-ray emission (PIXE), which consists on exposing samples to ion beam – a beam of energetic charged particles generated by particle accelerators. In addition, specialized benchtop X-ray Fluorescence (XRF) spectrometers utilize X-rays to analyse the particulate matter samples. In both techniques, each element in the sample produces different fluorescent X-rays or “fingerprints” as a result of particle or X-ray irradiation, allowing scientists to see and quantify the elemental composition of the samples, explained Andreas Karydas, a nuclear physicist at the IAEA.

The scientists have also applied advanced source apportionment models like the Positive Matrix Factorization (PMF), which allows them to determine the type of sources and their relative contribution at the pollution level of each sampling area. 

Policymakers and regulatory agents can now use the findings to better shape and implement the right measures to fight air pollution in our country.
Lakmali Handagiripathira, representing Sri Lanka’s Atomic Energy Board at an IAEA workshop