From: Deborah Zabarenko & Cynthia Osterman, Reuters, Washington
Published March 11, 2011 06:25 AM

BP oil spill offers clues on air pollution

The BP oil spill that sent 4 million barrels of crude into the Gulf of Mexico last year also created air pollution, and studying this pollution gave scientists clues into how these contaminants get into the atmosphere.

BP's Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, 2010, killing 11 people and spewing oil from the underwater well that rose to the surface. It also created a plume of air pollution downwind of the spill, researchers reported in the journal Science.


The lightest chemicals in the oil evaporated within hours, as scientists expected them to do. What they didn't expect was that heavier compounds -- the ones with more carbon atoms per molecule -- in the oil took longer to evaporate, spread out much more widely and contributed most to the formation of air pollution particles.

"We were able to confirm a theory that a major portion of particulate air pollution is formed from chemicals that few are measuring, and which we once assumed were not abundant enough to cause harm," Joost de Gouw, a scientist at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a co-author of the study, said in a statement.

To measure the pollution above the Gulf, NOAA sent a "hurricane hunter" plane equipped to monitor air quality to make two flights over the area in June 2010, while oil was still spilling.

The plane, a Lockheed WP-3D Orion, was fully loaded with instruments designed to measure different types of air pollution particles, including organic aerosol and the chemicals from which they form.

But the plane did not measure the heavier compounds that ultimately contributed most to air pollution, because most air quality monitoring equipment is designed to look at the conventional contributors to poor air quality, which are the lighter, more volatile materials.

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