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Arnold School of Public Health

New assistant professor Eric Vejerano brings air quality expertise to the environmental health sciences department and SmartState Center for Environmental Nanoscience and Risk

July 19, 2017 | Erin Bluvas, 

The environmental health sciences (ENHS) department welcomed Eric Vejerano this past year. As an assistant professor, he also holds a faculty appointment with the SmartState Center for Environmental Nanoscience and Risk (CENR), which is directed by SmartState chair and ENHS professor Jamie Lead. His research strongly complements other CENR research in water, sediments and soils. Vejerano directs the Environmental Nanoscience Air Quality Lab as well.

Regardless of which hat he is wearing, Vejerano’s overarching focus is always the same: to understand the role of nanoparticles and environmental pollutants on air quality. His research seeks to discern how nanoparticles interact with environmental pollutants and how these interactions impact human health and the environment.

“Because nanoparticles are small, they behave surprisingly different from their larger counterparts,” Vejerano says of the uniqueness of nanoparticles. “They act as carriers of other pollutants.”

He further explains that there are different types of nanoparticles. Some nanoparticles are engineered, such as the antibacterial silver nanoparticles found in some textiles. Some nanoparticles are inadvertently formed as a byproduct of human activities (i.e., incidental nanoparticles), like the nanoparticles that are produced from the combustion of fuel in a gasoline-powered vehicle. And some nanoparticles are emitted from natural processes. These “natural nanoparticles” may arise from forest fires, volcanic eruptions, and others include highly specialized nanoparticles such as some viruses.

“Of interest to me are processes that emit nanoparticles resulting from burning of waste and fuel that may contain engineered nanomaterial or form nanoparticles such as those emitted by vehicles or during thermal treatment of waste,” says Vejerano. “Burning and thermal treatment are interesting processes because a single pollutant can be transformed to a variety of pollutants.”

Vejerano also studies free radicals, many of which are highly reactive and therefore potentially damaging when formed inside a biological system, such as a human. “Some free radicals—called environmentally persistent free radicals—that are emitted from combustion processes can piggyback on nanoparticles and are present in atmospheric particles," says Vejerano. “As the name suggests, environmentally persistent free radicals are persistent, meaning they exist for a much longer time, and can therefore have effects over long periods.”

Through his research, Vejerano and colleagues have observed these types of free radicals endure for almost a year, an unusually long amount of time that allows the particles to be transported and impact a larger area. His studies aim to understand how nanomaterials may catalyze the formation of environmentally persistent free radicals as well as their adverse impact on the environment and human health.

Originally from the Philippines, Vejerano has held a lifelong interest in chemistry and the potential of chemicals to become environmental pollutants. He earned a bachelor’s degree in agricultural chemistry from the University of the Philippines Los Baños before moving to the United States more than a decade ago to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry from Louisiana State University.

After a four-year postdoctoral training at Virginia Tech, he joined the Arnold School due to the match between his research interests as well as the diverse set of opportunities for collaborations to address important air quality and human health issues. Vejerano enjoys living in South Carolina, and found some parallels between the Palmetto State and the Philippines: “It’s almost like home, hot and humid!”

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