Tracking the Secret Life of Soot: Sediment Surveillance

This post is part of PRX’s STEM Story Project series.

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For a long time, scientists have known that breathing in soot from vehicles and power plants is bad for us. But the soot itself might not be the problem—at least not entirely. Scientists have found that particles live a ‘secret life’ once released into the atmosphere, picking up toxic gases and other hitchhikers before making their way into our lungs.

In researching Tracking the Secret Life of Soot, producer Reid Frazier was struck by how the scientists he spoke with described the properties of soot as it ages in the atmosphere. Their words of choice were “sticky” and “gooey,” not exactly the most scientific terms in the book! “It struck me as a wonderful way to describe the process–it’s visceral,” he explains.

But how to convey that through audio? Then one day, Frazier had an idea:

“I was at home writing the script one day when I looked at my garden—really, just a patch of untended flowers and weeds. I got an idea. I dug a hole, filled it up with water, then took my shoes off and stood in the muddy pit I’d created. I turned my mic on to capture the mucky, suction-y sound of me trying to lift my feet out. This is how I made that goopy sound you here in the background of the story as one of the scientists explains what happens to a soot particle in the atmosphere. It was the most fun you can have working—getting to walk barefoot in the mud. And it made great ‘gooey’ audio.”

Since Reid’s piece came out, a new study from MIT found that 53,000 people a year die prematurely because of automobile pollution in the U.S., compared to 34,000 people a year who die in traffic accidents.

Air pollution has also been implicated in low birth weight (and subsequent health problems and premature death), 430,000 premature deaths per year in Europe, and 4,655 premature deaths in São Paulo in 2011. Emissions from cars are a major cause of Beijing’s infamous smog.

Learn more about the secret life of soot and other particles in the air around us by listening to Reid’s piece.

Want to help monitor local air quality? A new citizen science project named AirCasting allows you to use your smartphone to record and share data about the air quality around you.

Image from EarthTimes.