#Expert Q & A: Amid the Wildfire Haze, NJIT's Alexei Khalizov Explains What's in the AirSeptember 21, 20234 min read
The soot that permeated the air in New Jersey and New York this summer — courtesy of massive wildfires in Canada — is exactly what a New Jersey Institute of Technology professor is studying to determine its impact on climate change.
Alexei Khalizov, an associate professor of chemistry and environmental science, is partnering with Associate Professor Gennady Gor on the three-year project, which began last year and is supported by a $620,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. Specifically, they’re examining the soot created by wildfires and the burning of fossil fuels in hopes of better predicting its impact on climate.
Khalizov, who’s been at NJIT since 2013, took time out from his research to explain what millions of residents of N.J. and N.Y. are experiencing as a result of the wildfires hundreds of miles to the north.
Q: What’s in the smoke?
Small particles and some gas chemicals. These particles and chemicals were released by wildfires and they were picked up by the air mass and carried all the way to New Jersey from Canada. Those particles are extremely small: you can stack maybe a hundred of such particles across single human hair thickness.
Q: Is breathing it the equivalent of smoking a pack of cigarettes?
That would be a reasonable comparison. A cigarette is made of plant material. When it smolders and burns it releases particles that are very much like those particles from wildfires. Maybe the only difference is that the wildfires have no nicotine. But they have lots of other chemicals.
Q: What factors contribute to the density of the smoke?
Well, it's a major wildfire. It covers a huge territory in Canada. And the meteorology is such that this smoke is carried all the way from Canada to the U.S. without significant dilution. And due to that, the concentration of those particles is very high.
Q: When did we last experienced something of this magnitude?
We had some Canadian and Alaskan wildfires a few years ago. And air mass transport brought the smoke all the way to New Jersey, but it wasn't as bad as what we are observing today.
Q: What about in terms of EPA standards?
The Environmental Protection Agency has a list of criteria pollutants. One of those pollutants is particles smaller than 2.5 microns. And typically, if the concentration of those particles exceeds 35 micrograms per cubic meter, the air is considered unhealthy. When I looked at the map of pollution today (June 7, 2023), it showed that throughout the majority of New Jersey, the concentration is around 90 micrograms, which is two to three times higher than this unhealthy threshold. And actually, there is a location, I believe it's around Paterson, where the concentration is 140 micrograms, which is four to five times above the threshold.
Q: Can the wildfires in South Jersey be contributing to this?
It's possible, but probably it's not a major contribution. Also, if you look at the wind pattern, it's probably not a major factor at all.
Q: Why is wind unable to disperse the smoke?
For the wind to disperse the smoke, one needs to mix clean air with all this contaminated air and the amount of contaminated air is so high that there’s no clean air around to actually produce any dilution.
Q: Why is there so much haze?
It’s because of the continuous inflow of air, which is contaminated by emissions from the wildfires. The haze itself has a relatively short lifespan.
Q: How does temperature change affect the smoke?
If the temperature increases that may accelerate the rate of some chemical reactions that will also be accelerated by the sunlight. And that's one reason why the smoke that was released in Canada is not exactly the same smoke that we experience in New Jersey. As this haze is traveling over three to six hundred miles, it undergoes a number of chemical reactions and even the smell changes. You know how freshly released wood smoke smells — it's actually pretty pleasant. What we're smelling now, it's not pleasant at all. That's the result of those chemical reactions, which makes this even more unhealthy.
Q: Will rain immediately clear the smoke?
Yes, it will. If we could have rain, then the rain would remove the majority of these particles. And in fact, I believe we've been experiencing the smoke for several days, almost a week now. It would go up and decrease. And we’ve had several rains and those rains did really clear out some smoke.
Q: What can we do individually and collectively to protect ourselves?
We can help ourselves by staying indoors and wearing masks if you have to go outside. Certainly, exercising outside is not a good idea even while wearing a mask. Also, if you have a central air conditioning system, you can turn on the fan to run the air through the filter, which will remove some of these particles. It depends on what kind of filter you have — high efficiency or regular.
Q: What kind of mask?
Make sure that it's an N-95 mask, not a surgical mask. A surgical mask is not is not going to help you at all.
Q: How does what we’re experiencing relate to your research?
My collaborator and I received a major grant from the National Science Foundation to study the particles released by combustion. As they travel through the air, they change both in shape and in composition. And these changes affect their toxicity and they affect their impact on climate. These particles actually are one of the warming agents. So, we hope that within about three years of working on this project, we’ll be able to explain better what happens and then modelers will be able to predict the impacts of such events with better accuracy.
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Alexei Khalizov Associate Professor, Chemistry and Environmental Science
Alexei Khalizov's research focuses on the chemical and physical processes that govern the transformations of atmospheric pollutants.