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U Alberta study shows for the first time that sunlight causes chemical reactions in road dust; singlet oxygen

Researchers at the University of Alberta (Canada) have shown for the first time that road dust is photochemically active; i.e., sunlight causes chemical reactions in the dust.

Road dust resuspension is a major source of particulate matter in many urban centers—especially those in which traction materials are applied to roadways in winter. Although many studies have investigated the composition and toxicity of road dust, up until this study, nothing was known regarding its photochemical reactivity.


Unlike desert dust, which is primarily composed of crustal material, road dust is a complex mixture that also includes particles from road surface, brake, and tire wear; traction materials; semivolatile components of vehicle exhaust; and vegetative detritus, including soil and humic materials. As a result of its source profile, road dust also contains a number of toxic species, including heavy metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Several road dust constituents, including soil, humic substances, and non-transition metal oxides, have been shown to produce the important environmental oxidant singlet oxygen (1O2) upon being illuminated. These observations suggest that road dust itself may be a photochemical source of 1O2 and thereby promote a variety of atmospherically important 1O2-mediated processes, including the oxidation of surface-sorbed PAHs.

In the study, the team study, investigated the photochemical production of 1O2 by size-fractionated road dust collected in Edmonton, Alberta and compared the reactivity of this substrate to that of Arizona test dust, Niger sand, and Cape Verde dust.

Using a molecular probe technique (furfuryl alcohol, FFA), the research team showed that the illumination of aqueous road dust suspensions leads to the production of singlet oxygen—an important environmental oxidant. Although the physical properties of singlet oxygen only differ subtly from those of the more prevalent triplet ground state of O2, singlet oxygen is far more reactive toward organic compounds.

In experiments conducted using size-fractionated road dust, the U Alberta team found that the surface area-normalized steady-state 1O2 concentration ([1O2]ss) increased with decreasing particle size.

The team also observed correlations between [1O2]ss and the dissolved organic carbon content and ultraviolet absorbance properties of dust extracts, which suggests the involvement of chromophoric water-soluble organic carbon in the observed photochemistry. [1O2]ss in aqueous road dust extracts was lower than in the corresponding particle-containing samples, implying that the particle surface itself also participated in 1O2.

We found that when you shine light on road dust, it produces a reactive form of oxygen called singlet oxygen. It acts as an oxidant in the environment and can cause or influence other chemical reactions.

—Sarah Styler, corresponding author

Styler explained that if contaminants in road dust react with singlet oxygen, that means that sunlight could change the lifetime and potency of those contaminants in ways we don’t yet understand.

One group of chemicals that could react with singlet oxygen are a set of toxic components of combustion emissions, known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

The team will next examine road dust from other places around the city, including residential, commercial, and park areas to understand better if and how the different composition of road dust will influence reactivity.


  • Chelsea D. Cote, Stephanie R. Schneider, Ming Lyu, Sherry Gao, Lin Gan, Adam J. Holod, Thomas H. H. Chou, and Sarah A. Styler (2018) “Photochemical Production of Singlet Oxygen by Urban Road Dust” Environmental Science & Technology Letters doi: 10.1021/acs.estlett.7b00533



"In ways we don't yet understand."
So could be a good thing or not so good.
The good news is that our efforts to build cities on the moon and Mars will possibly help solve the difficulties we face on earth?

Just wanted to try the new layout!


"road dust also contains a number of toxic species, including heavy metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)" No matter how you look at it, those are not so good.


The unanswered question here is weather these photo chemical oxidising reactions to variety of oxygen singlets' make the various 'road dust products less or more of a hazard.
It would seem that something like this is working to prevent ongoing accumulation or persistence of these materials alternatively that things are in fact worse than thought.
Obviously an important question.

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