Canada's oil sands operation is causing North America's air pollution, a new study has found.

Researchers from the Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering of Yale University collaborated with Canadian scientists and found that the primary source of oil production is also the major source of air pollution.

Oil sands extractions in Alberta emit high levels of secondary organic aerosols (SOA) that pose risks to humans and the environment.

"The magnitude of the SOA is significantly larger than the sum of other sources of air pollution in many other major urban areas," said Drew Gentner, study co-author and assistant professor of Yale's Chemical and Environmental Engineering, and Forestry and Environmental Studies. He noted that the amount of air pollution produced by the oil sands operations matches the levels commonly found in populous cities like Los Angeles, Paris or Houston.

The World Health Organization, after releasing the list of cities with the worst air pollution, warned against its negative effects, particularly to children and pregnant women.

SOAs belong to the air pollution category of PM 2.5 or particulate matter measuring 2.5 microns in diameter that causes millions of fatalities annually. Compared to primary organic aerosols like carbon monoxide that is produced during combustion, the SOA is formed via oxidation in the air.

Since the oil sands operation is in the less populous area of Alberta, the researchers cannot exact yet the effects of SOA on human health. Its effect on climate, on the other hand, can be disastrous because SOA reflects solar radiation.

Desiree Plata, co-author and also a Chemical and Environmental Engineering assistant professor at Yale, said the current findings open up more areas of study regarding oil sands.

Plata said they need to identify other exposure routes, and determine whether or not during the entire process, these aerosols gets transferred into the air, solid residues and water waste. She added that they also need to compare the pros and cons of oil sands versus other fossil technologies.

The team is now looking at the methodology employed by oil sands operation to better understand its impact.

The study was published in Nature on May 25.

 Photo: CLS Research Office | Flickr

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