In many large cities of Europe standard air quality limit values of particulate matter (PM) are exceeded. Emissions from road traffic and biomass burning are frequently reported to be the major causes. As a consequence of these exceedances a large number of air quality plans, most of them focusing on traffic emissions reductions, have been implemented in the last decade. In spite of this implementation, a number of cities did not record a decrease of PM levels. Thus, is the efficiency of air quality plans overestimated? Do the road traffic emissions contribute less than expected to ambient air PM levels in urban areas? Or do we need a more specific metric to evaluate the impact of the above emissions on the levels of urban aerosols?
This study shows the results of the interpretation of the 2009 variability of levels of PM, Black Carbon (BC), aerosol number concentration (N) and a number of gaseous pollutants in seven selected urban areas covering road traffic, urban background, urban-industrial, and urban-shipping environments from southern, central and northern Europe.
The results showed that variations of PM and N levels do not always reflect the variation of the impact of road traffic emissions on urban aerosols. However, BC levels vary proportionally with those of traffic related gaseous pollutants, such as CO, NO2 and NO. Due to this high correlation, one may suppose that monitoring the levels of these gaseous pollutants would be enough to extrapolate exposure to traffic-derived BC levels. However, the BC/CO, BC/NO2 and BC/NO ratios vary widely among the cities studied, as a function of distance to traffic emissions, vehicle fleet composition and the influence of other emission sources such as biomass burning. Thus, levels of BC should be measured at air quality monitoring sites.
During morning traffic rush hours, a narrow variation in the N/BC ratio was evidenced, but a wide variation of this ratio was determined for the noon period. Although in central and northern Europe N and BC levels tend to vary simultaneously, not only during the traffic rush hours but also during the whole day, in urban background stations in southern Europe maximum N levels coinciding with minimum BC levels are recorded at midday in all seasons. These N maxima recorded in southern European urban background environments are attributed to midday nucleation episodes occurring when gaseous pollutants are diluted and maximum insolation and O-3 levels occur. The occurrence of SO2 peaks may also contribute to the occurrence of midday nucleation bursts in specific industrial or shipping-influenced areas, although at several central European sites similar levels of SO2 are recorded without yielding nucleation episodes.
Accordingly, it is clearly evidenced that N variability in different European urban environments is not equally influenced by the same emission sources and atmospheric processes. We conclude that N variability does not always reflect the impact of road traffic on air quality, whereas BC is a more consistent tracer of such an influence. However, N should be measured since ultrafine particles (