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Black Carbon Research

Black carbon is the sooty black material emitted from gas and diesel engines, coal-fired power plants, and other sources that burn fossil fuel. It comprises a significant portion of particulate matter or PM, which is an air pollutant.

Black carbon is a global environmental problem that has negative implications for both human health and our climate. Inhalation of black carbon is associated with health problems including respiratory and cardiovascular disease, cancer, and even birth defects. Black carbon also contributes to climate change causing changes in patterns of rain and clouds.

Research findings and technical support will be provided to other EPA offices, the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves (GACC), the Partnership for Clean Indoor Air (PCIA) and other partners to:
  • Set global standards for cleaner stoves and fuels
  • Improve current stove designs while taking socio-economic costs into account for those affected.

As black carbon deposits in the Arctic, the particles cover the snow and ice, decreasing the Earth’s ability to reflect the warming rays of the sun, while absorbing heat and hastening melt.

Black carbon research is being conducted in many areas to improve understanding of this tiny carbon particle:
  • Measurement Research

    EPA scientists are working to improve ways to measure black carbon, learn more about its composition and compare its impacts relative to other airborne particles.

    Researchers are:
    • Studying how particles absorb and scatter different wavelengths of light
    • Measuring black carbon’s mass and if other particles adhere to black carbon
    • Evaluating low-cost and palm-sized instruments that may give a wider range of measurements of black carbon.
  • Modeling Research

    Models developed by EPA researchers simulate black carbon and other particles in the atmosphere and are used to examine possible scenarios of future air pollution.

  • Health Effects Research

    Black carbon is a major contributor to the fine particle (PM2.5) burden in the air. It is small enough to be easily inhaled into the lungs and has been associated with adverse health effects. EPA scientists study the effects of particles including black carbon on human health.

    Research to investigate children’s asthma in Detroit, Michigan examined the impact of diesel exhaust from roadways. As part of this research effort, the Near-Road Exposures to Urban Air Pollutants Study (NEXUS) evaluated the impact of vehicle emissions, including black carbon, on near-road exposures and asthma outcomes.

    Similarly, controlled clinical studies in adults are being conducted to examine the health effects from exposure to different air quality scenarios: diesel exhaust, clean air, ozone, or a mixture of diesel exhaust and ozone.

    Peat-burning wildfires release enormous amounts of PM, including black carbon, which has been linked to increased risk of heart failure and respiratory hospital visits.

    EPA research will continue to evaluate the effects on disadvantaged groups of wildfires that release black carbon.

  • Cookstove Initiative

    Almost 4 million deaths a year are caused by the use of indoor cook stoves worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. Burning wood, dung or coal in cookstoves emits substantial amounts of black carbon.

    A cookstove research initiative by EPA will work to find efficient solutions to reduce exposures to black carbon and the adverse health effects that result from those exposures. This research includes tests on different stove types and fuels to find better alternatives and guide future stove technologies. It will help inform international efforts to reduce black carbon emissions and human exposures.

    Health effects from exposures to emissions from cook stoves are studied through clinical, cell and animal studies. Such tests are used to define black carbon’s role in disease and to improve risk assessments.

    Research findings and technical support will be provided to other EPA offices, the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves (GACC), the Partnership for Clean Indoor Air (PCIA) and other partners to:

    • Set global standards for cleaner stoves and fuels
    • Improve current stove designs while taking socio-economic costs into account for those affected.
  • Research Funding

    EPA announced nine STAR Research grants, totaling more than $6.6 million, in October 2011 to eight universities to research black carbon. The grantees will further research the pollutant’s emission sources and its impacts on climate change and health.

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