Every liver we suck in consists mainly of nitrogen, with a generous dose of oxygen and a little carbon dioxide.
But cleaning up this atmospheric soup is a whole encyclopedia of different compounds and elements, some of which we can only speculate about.
However, one of these mysteries has just come to the fore. Chemists have shown that there is a reactive class of compounds in the atmosphere called organic hydrotrioxides, and while these chemicals only last for a short time, they could have effects we don’t know about.
In fact, according to researchers, you’re just sucking a few billion molecules out of them as you read this.
What exactly this means for your health, not to mention the health of our planet, is literally and figuratively in the air. But given that we have just discovered this new ingredient in the Earth’s atmosphere, it is worth considering.
“These compounds have always existed – we just didn’t know about them,” said chemist Henrik Grum Koorgaard of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.
“But the fact that we now have evidence that compounds are formed and live for a period of time means that it is possible to study their effect … and respond if they prove dangerous.”
Quite often in chemistry, the addition of only one new component can radically change the behavior of the material.
Take water, for example. Thanks to the way its hydrogen and single oxygen pairs interact, organic chemistry can mix and swirl into an evolving phenomenon we call life.
However, add just one more oxygen and you will get hydrogen peroxide – a far more reactive compound that can break down living chemicals.
Stick another oxygen on this angry little molecule and the result is hydrotrioxide. To do this, you only need the right kind of laboratory equipment, a little saturated organic compounds and a little dry ice.
This is not exactly the party trick you would use to spice up a margarita, but chemists have used their production to generate a specific molecular oxygen flavor as a step in the production of various other substances.
Because they are highly reactive, the question is whether hydrotrioxides can easily form stable structures in the atmosphere.
This is also not just an academic point of speculation. So much of the way our atmosphere works, from the complex ways it affects personal health to the vastness of the global climate, comes from the way traces of the materials in it interact.
“Most human activity leads to emissions of chemicals into the atmosphere. So knowing the reactions that determine atmospheric chemistry is important if we want to be able to predict how our actions will affect the atmosphere in the future,” said Christon H. Moeller. also a chemist at the University of Copenhagen.
The team’s research now provides the first direct observations of the formation of hydrotrioxide in atmospheric conditions from several substances known to be present in our air.
This allowed them to study how the compound was likely to be synthesized, how long it remained, and how it degraded.
One such emission, called isoprene, can react in the atmosphere to generate about 10 million metric tons of hydrotrioxide each year.
However, this is only one potential source. Based on the team’s calculations, almost any compound could theoretically play a role in the formation of hydrotrioxides in the atmosphere, which remain intact from a few minutes to several hours.
During this time, they can be involved in many other reactions such as a powerful oxidant, some of which can be housed in microscopic wind-blown solids.
“It is easy to imagine that new substances are formed in aerosols that are harmful if inhaled. But further research is needed to address these potential health consequences, ”says Koorgaard.
Because aerosols also affect the way our planet reflects sunlight, knowing how their internal chemistry causes them to grow or decompose can change the way we model our climate.
Further research will no doubt begin to reveal the role of hydrotrioxides in our planet’s atmospheric cocktail. As Jing Chen, a researcher at the University of Copenhagen, points out, this is really just the beginning.
“In fact, the air around us is a huge tangle of complex chemical reactions,” says Chen.
“As researchers, we need to keep an open mind if we want to be better at finding solutions.”
This study was published in science.