Environment Blog

Taking Mugshots of Pollutants

Windows can be used for more than a view—for virtual environmental pollutant flypaper.

September 21, 2009
Windows can be used for more than a view - for virtual environmental pollutant flypaper. [Credit: themanwithsalthair, flickr.com]
Windows can be used for more than a view - for virtual environmental pollutant flypaper. [Credit: themanwithsalthair, flickr.com]

Catching environmental pollutants on your carpets, floors and windows is harder than emptying the vacuum or getting a streak-free shine.

In a recent study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology a group of Canadian scientists described a novel, cheap and accurate way to measure concentrations of an extremely powerful family of greenhouse gases known as perfluorocarbons, or PFCs. The trick, the researchers found, was to wipe the particles that collect on window surfaces, both inside and out.  With their non-reactive and easy-to-clean surfaces, windows make perfect sample slides for collecting free-floating compounds such as PFCs.

Once scraped from the glass, samples are run through reversed-phase liquid chromatography, which separates the tangled clump of molecules into specific groups that scientists can see. From there, researchers can identify what kinds of compounds stuck to the glass in the first place and what pollutants linger in the area.

By sampling the air in Toronto, Canadian researchers learned that PFC levels are 20 times higher indoors than outside, which suggests that indoor material like carpets and floor wax are important sources of contamination. As concern for global warming heats up, governments are reining in emissions of all chemicals that contribute to a toastier atmosphere—not just the ones that come from power plants. This research suggests that home sources, may be in line for tougher emission regulations.

Like many slippery criminals, air pollutants mark their paths with pieces of fingerprints and incomplete mug shots, but this new research may be just the user-friendly security cam that scientists need to lock-up polluters.

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1 Comment

The use of the acronym PFCs as perfluorocarbons in this opinion piece is incorrect. The PFCs noted in the ES&T article are described as perfluoroalkyl contaminants. However, PFCs are more commonly known as perfluorinated compounds.

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