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Isocyanic acid in a global chemistry transport model: Tropospheric distribution, budget, and identification of regions with potential health impacts

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal article


  • Paul Young
  • Louisa K. Emmons
  • James M Roberts
  • Jean-Francois Lamarque
  • Christine Wiedinmyer
  • Patrick Veres
  • Trevor C. VandenBoer
Article numberD10308
Journal publication date2012
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres
Number of pages14
Original languageEnglish


This study uses a global chemical transport model to estimate the distribution of isocyanic acid (HNCO). HNCO is toxic, and concentrations exceeding 1 ppbv have been suggested to have negative health effects. Based on fire studies, HNCO emissions were scaled to those of hydrogen cyanide (30%), resulting in yearly total emissions of 1.5 Tg for 2008, from both anthropogenic and biomass burning sources. Loss processes included heterogeneous uptake (pH dependent), dry deposition (like formic acid), and reaction with the OH radical (k = 1 × 10−15 molecule−1 cm3 s−1). Annual mean surface HNCO concentrations were highest over parts of China (maximum of 470 pptv), but episodic fire emissions gave much higher levels, exceeding 4 ppbv in tropical Africa and the Amazon, and exceeding 10 ppbv in Southeast Asia and Siberia. This suggests that large biomass burning events could result in deleterious health effects for populations in these regions. For the tropospheric budget, using the model-calculated pH the HNCO lifetime was 37 days, with the split between dry deposition and heterogeneous loss being 95%:5%. Fixing the heterogeneous loss rate at pH = 7 meant that this process dominated, accounting for ∼70% of the total loss, giving a lifetime of 6 days, and resulting in upper tropospheric concentrations that were essentially zero. However, changing the pH does not notably impact the high concentrations found in biomass burning regions. More observational data is needed to evaluate the model, as well as a better representation of the likely underestimated biofuel emissions, which could mean more populations exposed to elevated HNCO concentrations.