Category Archives: James Laing

2 new papers explore methods for measuring biomass burning pollutants

Research by Jaffe Group postdoctoral scholars Dr. James Laing and Dr. Boggarapu Praphulla Chandra has resulted in two new peer-reviewed publications. Both papers examine methods used for measuring air pollutants from wildfires.

The first paper, “Comparison of filter-based absorption measurements of biomass burning aerosol and background aerosol at the Mt. Bachelor Observatory,” was recently published in Aerosol and Air Quality Research. The authors, Dr. James Laing, Dr. Daniel Jaffe, and Dr. Arthur Sedlacek, III, evaluated the upgraded aethalometer (AE33, Magee Scientific) and the new tricolor absorption photometer (TAP, Brechtel) to assess their effectiveness in measuring wildfire aerosol plumes. These instruments measure light-absorbing organic aerosols, which are emitted primarily in biomass burning. Both instruments were deployed at Mt. Bachelor Observatory (MBO) in central Oregon during the summer of 2016. Each instrument uses a similar methodology (“light extinction through an aerosol-laden filter”), but each has a unique set of corrections necessary to address filter-based bias and other issues. The coauthors found that when using the AE33 manufacturer’s recommended settings, correction factors that are larger than the manufacturer’s recommended factor are needed to calculate accurate absorption coefficients and equivalent black carbon.

Read the full paper.

In the second paper, coauthors Dr. Boggarapu Praphulla Chandra, Dr. Crystal McClure, JoAnne Mulligan, and Dr. Daniel Jaffe evaluated the use of dual-bed thermal desorption (TD) tubes with an auto-sampler to sample volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Their paper, “Optimization of a method for the detection of biomass-burning relevant VOCs in urban areas using thermal desorption gas chromatography mass spectrometry,” appeared in the journal Atmosphere in March. For this study, the authors utilized a portable, custom-made “suitcase” sampler, which they deployed in  Boise, ID, during the summer of 2019.

The sampler continuously collected samples of VOCs on the TD tubes for up to six days without the need for continuous on-site monitoring. The tubes were later transferred to the lab for analysis using thermal desorption gas chromatography mass spectrometry (TD-GC-MS) to detect VOCs.

Suitcase thermal desorption VOC auto-sampler 4-2020

(a) Internal view of the volatile organic compound (VOC) suitcase sampler; (b) Flow diagram of the VOC suitcase sampler; (c) Schematic diagram of the dual-bed TD tubes.

They found that “reactive and short-lived VOCs such as acetonitrile (a specific chemical tracer for biomass burning), acetone, n-pentane, isopentane, benzene, toluene, furan, acrolein, 2-butanone, 2,3-butanedione, methacrolein, 2,5- dimethylfuran, and furfural . . . can be quantified reproducibly with a total uncertainty of ≤30% between the collection and analysis, and with storage times of up to 15 days.”

Their research demonstrates the applicability of this flexible method for ambient VOC speciation and determining the influence of forest fire smoke. This sampling method offers a practical alternative for urban air quality monitoring sites because its portability does not require the installation of a complex and expensive instrument and its auto-sampling technique does not require continuous on-site monitoring.

Read the full paper.

Wildfires are causing extreme PM in the western US

Wildfire smoke on 9/6/2017

Wildfire smoke covering the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia on September 6, 2017, from MODIS true color reflectance image. Red dots represent fire locations. Source:

New research by James Laing and Dan Jaffe shows how increases in wildfire smoke have impacted air quality in the western US. Their recent paper, published in the June 2019 issue of EM—The Magazine for Environmental Managers, describes the changing air quality picture for western states. Even though air quality in most of the US has improved in the last four decades, due in large part to the US Clean Air Act regulations, it is not improving in much of the western US. The reason for the decrease in air quality in western states is wildfire smoke.

In 2017 and 2018, wildfires caused the largest daily mean concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM2.5; particles with diameter less than 2.5 μm) ever measured at monitoring sites in the US. Some of the extreme PM2.5 events of 2017–2018 include the following:

  • Seeley Lake, Montana, September 6, 2017—Highest daily PM2.5 on record (642 μg/m3). In August-September 2017, there were 35 days with PM2.5 > 150 μg/m3 and 18 with PM2.5 > 250 μg/m3.
  • Ventura, California, December 6, 2017—PM2.5 of 557 μg/m3, with a two-week average concentration of 165 μg/m3.
  • Seattle, Washington, August 21, 2018—Highest daily PM2.5 ever recorded in Seattle (110 μg/m3).
  • Medford, Oregon, September 6, 2017—Highest daily PM2.5 ever recorded in Medford (268 μg/m3), and eight days over 100 μg/m3 in 2017.

To put these measurements in context, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set the daily PM2.5 standard at 35 μg/m3 (98th percentile < 35 μg/m3, averaged over 3 years). The EPA has also defined PM2.5 > 150 μg/m3 as very unhealthy and PM2.5 > 250 μg/m3 as hazardous. PM2.5 is such a health hazard because it can travel deep into the respiratory system due to its small size. Despite the gains in air quality in the US, about 30 million people live where the PM2.5 standard is not being met.

The estimated increase in the number and size of wildfires in the future raises issues for public officials and environmental managers. Complying with air quality standards and reducing human exposure to PM2.5 are causes for concern in the western US now and going forward.

Read the full paper here