Europe highlights the role of the PyroTRACH project on public health

The wildfires in Alberta Province, Canada, on 14 May 2023. © iStock Photos

The wildfires in Alberta Province, Canada, on 14 May 2023. © iStock Photos

By including the PyroTRACH research project in its 2022 annual report, the European Research Council has underscored the importance of the work being done by ENAC professor Athanasios Nenes and his team in the area of public health, climate and mitigation.

The 2022 annual report of the European Research Council highlights Prof. Nenes’ important findings under the Pyrogenic TRansformations Affecting Climate and Health (PyroTRACH) research project.

The project, which kicked off in 2017, examines how biomass burning particles from chimneys and forest fires are affecting climate and public health, and how the properties of these particles evolve over time. PyroTRACH has received nearly €2 million in funding from the European Research Council (ERC), one of the most competitive and prestigious funding programs worldwide. It is scheduled to end in November 2023.

Impact on health

PyroTRACH is being carried out through the Center of Studies on Air quality and Climate Change (C-STACC), which is part of the Institute of Chemical Engineering Sciences of the Foundation for Research and Technology Hellas at Patras, Greece and EPFL. Its findings to date emphasize the important role of smoke on health, and climate. The project to date has found ways to detect the presence in smoke in particles for days after emission; surprisingly smoke was found to chemically transform very rapidly at night in urban environments with a process not described in models. Smoke chemically transformed – or “aged” – in the atmosphere was found to become increasingly toxic, affecting the health of millions far away from its sources. PyroTRACH also studied the emissions and fate of highly carcinogenic compounds – polyaromatic hydrocarbons – and found that in urban environments, much of the annual exposure of populations to carcinogens is directly related to smoke exposure from domestic woodburning.

The Guardian, 17 December 2021

Impact on climate

The study also found that a fraction of its light-absorbing material (black carbon and brown carbon) persist and is available for warming the atmosphere and contribute to global warming. Biomass burning smoke was also found to decrease the acidity of particles, which in turn have important impacts on aerosol formation and the atmospheric transport and deposition of nitrogen and other species. PyroTRACH also studied the impact of biomass burning and other particles on clouds and precipitation, which is a critical component of anthropogenic climate change, and has fostered the development and deployment of remote sensing technology to sense the presence of smoke layers high above the ground. Given that smoke persists for many days after emission – and the latest wildfires just prove that – and its levels are projected to increase with climate change, these findings are as timely as ever.

EPFL News, 10 February 2022

EPFL News, 12 July 2023

Since the ERC was founded in 2007, only six Swiss ERC projects have been cited its annual reports: three by EPFL (including PyroTRACH), two by ETH Zurich and one by the University of Zurich. «It is a tremendous honor to be featured in the annual report”, says Prof. Nenes. “and the first time a topic at the intersection of climate, health and extremes, as wildfires, has been cited. We have largely underestimated the impacts that biomass burning has on public health and the Earth system. PyroTRACH has transformed our understanding of biomass burning impacts and future efforts will build upon these findings and help shape the models used for policies."