Increased levels of atmospheric soluble iron discovered in Chinese cities

New research conducted by the University of Birmingham, UK, has revealed that atmospheric, industrial and vehicle pollution in East China is boosting the amount of soluble iron particles in the atmosphere.

The study, which was conducted by the University of Birmingham and a number of Chinese universities (Zhejiang University, China University of Mining and Technology, Hebei University of Engineering, and Zhongyuan University of Technology), has indicated that acidic gases emitted from power generation, industry, and vehicle exhausts are increasing the amount of atmospheric soluble iron particles in Beijing, Handan, Zhengzhou, and Hangzhou.

Researchers discovered that the concentration of soluble iron particles was higher over the northern cities of Beijing, Handan and Zhengzhou than the southern city of Hangzhou. The experts selected the four cities to represent typical urban environments, with their respective populations of 21.5 million, 9.5 million, 10.1 million and 9.8 million citizens.

Study co-author Zongbo Shi, Professor of Atmospheric Biogeochemistry at the University of Birmingham, commented: “Acidic ‘man-made’ pollution helps to dissolve iron out of larger ‘mixed’ pollution particles – this is concerning because large amounts of tiny iron-containing particles can be inhaled and cause adverse health effects though the generation of oxygen free radicals.”

The dangers of atmospheric soluble iron

Airborne iron is an essential external source for phytoplankton growth and indirectly affects the seas’ capture of carbon dioxide, playing a significant role in the global carbon cycle and climate warming.

Professor Shi added: “Large amounts of soluble iron may be the catalyst for creating secondary sulphate particles in East China’s polluted atmosphere. We need further research to understand how this situation changes the creation of atmospheric oxygen free radicals which can pose significant health risks.”

Short-term human exposure to atmospheric iron can cause metal fume fever, an illness which displays flu like symptoms including difficulty breathing, fever, chills, and muscle pain. Exposure to the pollutant over an extended period of time can result in pneumoconiosis, a form of interstitial lung disease, and permanent discolouration of the eyes.

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