Vicki Grassian
What’s really in the air we breathe
TEDxSanDiego 2017

Before I get started I want everybody to take a deep breath of air. Feeling a little relaxed, a little more relaxed. I’ll tell you a little bit about that air you just took a breath of in a moment. But let me first get started.

By telling you about a recent National Academy of Engineering report that came out with Grand Challenges for engineering in the 21st century. Basically a to-do list for all of humanity, focusing on issues like personalized medicine, sustainable energy, and access to clean water. Now we know that there are so many grand challenges for us to take on, and this particular report listed 14 of these challenges. And they all make sense.

For example we think about clean water, access to clean water. How many people know about Hurricane Maria? OK. Did you read the newspaper today? What is the greatest humanitarian need for our citizens in Puerto Rico? Clean water. Getting bottled water to our citizens in Puerto Rico. So the Grand Challenge list, all 14 of them makes sense. But I would like to add a 15th to the list and that is keeping our air clean.

Because if you think about it for a moment you can go days without drinking water, but you can only go minutes without breathing air. So I pose the question here. What is in the air we breathe? Well there are gases, such as oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, water vapor, as well as other gases of much lower concentrations. Nitrogen oxide, sulfur oxides, and formaldehyde to name a few.

But there are also tiny particles called aerosols in our air. How many people know about aerosols. It’s not just the spray can that you’re used to, but instead any solid or liquid particle suspended in the air. Now scientists have been interested in aerosols for quite some time because they’re fascinating. They impact climate and they impact human health, as well as our atmosphere in ways we are just starting to understand.

So there’s some things I want to tell you about aerosols today. First they come from many different sources; volcanoes, soot from car exhaust, fly ash from industrial emissions, deserts, wildfires like we have in Northern California, and even oceans. So let’s think about what happens when we walk along the ocean, along the beach. And before I do that I want to tell you a few other things about aerosols.

They’re small, very small, smaller than the width of a hair, a thousand times smaller than the width of a hair. They have different physical and chemical properties, and some of them are biological in nature, viruses of microbes.

And so just think about walking along the walking along the beach, breathing in that air, thinking about family, thinking about friends. And you think, well this is really nice. Right. I’m breathing in salt air, everything is good, but there are things in that water; microbes and phytoplankton and enzymes and bacteria. And they too get into the air that you breathe.

Let’s think about what happens when there’s a contaminant spill. Has anybody seen signs go up along the beach that say do not go into the water, right? Don’t go in the water, don’t swim in the water. Now that’s a pretty easy directive to follow. What do you do? You don’t go in the water, right? Pretty easy directive to follow for most people, you can actually see some people back there in the water.

But I think about something else. I think about the air. And I want to put up a different sign. I want to put up a sign that says don’t breathe the air, cause when that contaminants spill happens, oil spill, sewage spill, that can get into the air, that can get into Sea spray aerosol, and get into the air you breathe.

That is something to think about.

I want to tell you something else about aerosols. They like to travel. How many of you like to travel? Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, Australia. Well they like to travel too. So let’s think about what happens when there’s a dust storm in Asia. OK. Now dust is something that’s particularly interesting to me because in some circles I’m known as the dust Queen for my work on mineral dust in the atmosphere.

So what happens when there’s a dust storm in Asia. Well on day one, high winds, arid region, dust gets lofted into the air and starts to travel, making its way to the Pacific Ocean two to four days later, approximately. And three days after that, here on the west coast of the United States. And so the air you’re breathing now could contain dust aerosol from Asia that originated one week earlier.

So what I like to say is what happens in Asia, doesn’t stay in Asia. But also what happens here in the U.S., doesn’t stay in the U.S., and we too export aerosols to other countries, to other continents. Now I get a lot of calls from people asking me about the air we breathe. Asking me about aerosols.

A farmer in Iowa wants to know if that industrial plant being built down the road, would fly ash emissions from that industrial plant impact his crops. Could it coat his soybean fields, his farm, his corn fields, these fields he worked so hard to maintain.

A woman from a day care wants to know if nanoparticles in the paint that she used to coat the walls of her daycare, could they get loose and get into the air. And they are nanoparticles there, because you can more easily clean the walls. But could they get loose, and could they get into the air.

So people want to know about aerosols, and can it effect me from a financial perspective, or from a health perspective. And so let’s talk about health for a moment, okay. We’ve known for some time, aerosols can impact our lungs, our pulmonary system, and people with asthma and COPD are most affected. My own daughter has asthma, and I’ve seen her having difficulty breathing, and that’s really hard to watch, and a lot of you parents out there might also have kids with asthma.

So exposure to aerosols can cause respiratory problems. It can cause a hard time breathing. Also the heart. There’s been a correlation between aerosols and cardiovascular health, so the heart is affected. But what I’m here to tell you today is that a brand new study has come out that has shown a correlation between pollution aerosols and dementia in older women.

So now we’re saying these aerosols can impact our brain health, and I would tell you I was totally surprised by that study, and I would say that’s something for all of us to really think about. Now that all sounds like bad news. I’m sorry I had to bring you some bad news.

But what I would say is that in my own lab working with students, I have a group of like 20 students trying to figure out what are the characteristics of aerosols that impact health, what are the characteristics that impact climate. Working together we are trying to really understand aerosols, and this our future, this is our next generation of scientists who want to work on these important topics. We also work in my laboratories located in the University of California San Diego campus.

We also work with the Center on that campus called CAICE, where not only do we do research, but we also do education. We empower people to make environmental measurements to make measurements of aerosols. Schoolchildren can make measurements of aerosols. And so what I would say is that, working together we can do so much.

And what I mean by that is, why can’t we have the public make environmental measurements have something, an app on your cell phone, being able to report it out to a larger network. We measure rainfall, and we report that out to local weather forecasters. Why can’t we report that out nationally in a national network. Environmental measurements being made by people like you.

And so what I would say is that I’m fascinated with aerosols from a scientific perspective, from a public perspective, and I want to know more. Drom a public perspective, I think it’s imperative that you know more.

So working together, scientists, citizens, this is time for us to think about these kinds of problems more rather than less. And I think working together we can do so much more. So, if it’s worth listening to Every Breath You Take, or Dust in the Winds, let’s all take a deep breath, and think about the air we breathe.