New potentially dangerous chemical found in atmosphere

Scientists have found highly reactive trioxides, which could be a danger to the human body.

Highly reactive chemical compounds have been discovered by scientists. They can form under normal atmospheric conditions, and could be a risk to humans’ health as well as the environment. While the existence of these compounds – called trioxides and consisting of three oxygen atoms bound together – had been theorized, researchers from the University of Copenhagen confirmed their presence in the air in a paper published Thursday in the journal Science. 

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Trioxides have a high flammability and are explosive. They are formed through the atmospheric decomposition of common substances emitted into the atmosphere, such as isoprene and dimethyl sulfide – in fact “Nearly all chemical substances,” according to co-author Jing Chen. They are formed by the reactions of two kinds of radicals and can persist for anywhere between a few hours to many hours. During this time, other compounds may react.

The researchers found that new compounds discovered during this time could be penetrate aerosols. These tiny, airborne particles can cause serious health problems, including respiratory disease and heart attack. Researchers haven’t studied the new compounds formed by trioxides combining with aerosols, and aren’t aware of their potential effects on human health.

The researchers also found that trioxides may influence the number of particles produced. It could have an effect on aspects such as the amount of sunlight reflected back into the atmosphere or absorbed by cloud formation. This can impact the climate and affect temperature.

While study co-author Kristan Moller noted that “The majority of human activity results in chemical substances being released into the atmosphere.,” his fellow co-author Eva Kjaergaard pointed out that the newly-discovered compounds were not themselves a new arrival to the atmosphere, stating “these compounds have always been around – we just didn’t know about them.”

They are not concerned about potential dangers, even though they have been discovered. Instead they view it as an opportunity. “It is now possible to examine the effects of these compounds more precisely and react if necessary.,” senior author Henrik Kjaergaard explained.

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Trioxides – specifically hydrotrioxides, the type of chemical the university researchers primarily found – exist at concentrations of 10 million per cubic centimeter in the atmosphere, about a tenth of the concentration of hydroxyl (OH) radicals, which are considered one of the most important atmospheric oxidants and are present at 1 million particles per cubic centimeter. As much as 1% of all isoprene – one of the most commonly-emitted organic compounds – released into the atmosphere decomposes into hydrotrioxides, according to the researchers.

The discovery suggests that there could be plenty of other things in the air that we don’t yet know about,” Chen observed, insisting that “Researchers must be open-minded if they want to find better solutions..”



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