Tag Archives: air pollution

Exposure to air pollution could be a cause of ADHD in children

While genetics play a big role, many other factors have been speculated to cause attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) – from eating too much sugar to watching TV. Now, researchers have found that high levels of air pollution and limited access to green areas can also increase the risk of developing the condition.

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.

ADHD is a common neurodevelopmental condition in children, which sometimes continues in adulthood. It’s a complex condition, difficult to diagnose, and with no cure. If left unchecked, ADHD can impact children’s performance at school and their relationships with parents and peers . It’s more common in boys than girls and it affects 1 in 20 children.

The disorder is generally diagnosed during the first years of school but it can manifest differently from child to child. Its cause, however, has been a subject of debate among researchers. In 2018, a study identified regions of the DNA associated with ADHD, for instance. But scientists have also been studying other factors, with no clear answers on many of them so far.

It seems like a lot of things could be responsible for ADHD, and the latest to blame is air pollution. According to previous research, it may cause ADHD through induced systemic oxidative stress, with disturbs brain development, leading to cognitive deficits. Noise exposure can also increase stress, with is associated with psychological disorders such as hyperactivity. However, results from previous research have so far been inconsistent or limited.

In a new study, researchers at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) looked at the links between environmental exposures (greenness, air pollution and noise) in early life and later ADHD incidence – using environmental exposure metrics in combination with a population-based birth cohort linked with administrative data.

“We observed that children living in greener neighborhoods with low air pollution had a substantially decreased risk of ADHD. This is an environmental inequality where, in turn, those children living in areas with higher pollution and less greenness face a disproportionally greater risk”, lead author Matilda van den Bosch said in a statement.

ADHD and air pollution

For the study, the researchers used birth data from the metropolitan area of Vancouver, Canada from 2000 to 2001 and also retrieved data on ADHD cases from hospital records. They estimated the percentage of green spaces in the participants’ neighborhoods as well as the levels of air and noise pollution, using exposure models.

The study identified a total of 1,217 ADHD cases, which represents 4.2% of the sampled population. The participants living in areas with a larger percentage of vegetation had a lower risk of ADHD. More specifically, the study showed that a 12% increase in vegetation was linked with a 10% drop in the risk of having ADHD.

The opposite associated was observed with air pollution. The participants who had higher exposure to PM2.5 (fine particulate matter) had a higher risk of ADHD. Specifically, every 2.1 microgram increase in the levels of PM2.5 meant an 11% increase in the risk of ADHD. No link was found between noise pollution, NO2, and ADHD.

“Our findings also show that the associations between PM2.5 and ADHD were attenuated by residential green space and vice versa as if the beneficial effects of vegetation and the harmful effects of PM2.5 neutralized each other,” Weiran Yuchi, a researcher at the University of British Columbia and first author of the study, said in a statement.

The study was published in the journal Environment International.

The unseen pandemic: Air pollution contributed to 1.8 million excess deaths in 2019

If you’re living in a city, the air you breathe is almost certainly affecting your overall health. A new study found that 86% of the people living in cities worldwide (about 2.5 billion) are exposed to levels of fine particulate matter that largely exceeded the suggested guidelines from the World Health Organization (WHO). Overall, almost air pollution claims almost 2 million lives a year, a figure that may yet increase.

Image credit: Friends of the Earth / Flickr.

More than half (55%) of the world population is currently living in cities, which has massive implications in terms of human health; as urbanization continues in much of the world, the percentage is set to grow. Nevertheless, there’s been limited research comparing urban areas in terms of PM2.5 disease burden – with most studies focusing only on megacities. This is what this new study hopes to address, and the results are sobering.

In the new study, researchers estimate 61 in every 100,000 deaths in urban areas was attributable to PM2.5, a fine particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or less that is especially dangerous to human health due to its small size that allow it to penetrate deep in the lungs. 

“The majority of the world’s urban population still live in areas with unhealthy levels of PM2.5,” Veronica Southerland, lead author of the study, said in a statement. “Avoiding the large public health burden caused by air pollution will require strategies that not only reduce emissions but also improve overall public health to reduce vulnerability.”

The risks of air pollution

Researchers from George Washington University looked at PM2.5 concentrations and associated mortality trends in over 13,000 cities globally from 2000 to 2019. PM2.5 pollutants come from many sources; primary ones, such as power plants, and secondary ones – formed when different chemicals combine and react in the air.

Average PM2.5 concentrations were consistent over the analyzed period, but with big differences by regions. Urban areas in South-East Asia had the biggest regional increases, with a 27% hike in PM2.5 concentrations. Meanwhile, South-East Asian cities also had the largest hike in PM2.5-attributable mortality rates – going from 63 to 84 deaths in 100,000 people. 

The researchers also found that a decrease in PM2.5 concentrations in urban areas across the two decades (for example, in European and North American cities) didn’t match the same level of decreases in deaths. This shows that other demographic factors, such as poor overall health and aging are also big drivers of pollution-related mortality. 

Asthma and air pollution

The same group of researchers simultaneously published a second study looking at nitrogen dioxide gas (NO2), an air pollutant emitted by vehicles, agriculture, and power plants. Previous studies showed NO2 can be liked to asthma exacerbation, especially in children, but without data of its long-term incidence in urban areas. 

The team calculated global NO2 concentrations by combining satellite data with datasets on different types of land use, like roads, and parks. Concentrations were then applied to populations and pediatric asthma rates to calculate pediatric asthma attributable to NO2 between 2000 and 2019 in over 13,000 urban areas in the world. 

The study showed that there were 1,85 million new cases of pediatric asthma associated with NO2 in 2019 – 8.5% of all new cases reported that year. Two in three cases of pediatric asthma attributable to NO2 happened in the urban areas covered by the study. NO2 caused 16% of all new pediatric asthma cases in urban areas in 2019. 

The studies were published in The Lancet Planetary Health and can be accessed here and here. 

Air pollution still kills over 300,000 people in Europe alone

Despite a small improvement, air pollution continues to cause a lot of premature death and disease in Europe. According to a 2019 analysis conducted by the European Environment Agency (EEA), deaths caused by fine particle air pollution accounted for 307,000 lost lives a year — 10% lower than the 346,000 registered by EEA in 2018.

Image credit: Flickr / UN.

The reduction in deaths was partly because of favorable weather but mainly because of improvements in air quality across the continent, the EEA said. In the 1990s, the 27 European Union member nations registered almost a million premature deaths due to fine particle air pollution, a figure that was more than halved to 450,000 by 2005.

Poland registered the highest figure of premature deaths from particulate matter per head of population in 2019 (39,300), followed by Germany (53,800), Italy (49,900) France (29,800), and Spain (23,300). Poland and Germany are also Europe’s most coal-dependent countries — between the two of them, they account for half of Europe’s coal energy.

Air pollution is the biggest environmental threat to human health in the continent, with heart diseases and strokes causing the most deaths. The EEA also registered premature deaths linked to other pollutants, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and ozone (O3), but these are not counted in the overall toll to avoid doubling up. Deaths caused by NO2 (from thermal power plants and vehicles) dropped by 25% to 40,000, while those linked to O3 declined 13% to 16,800 in 2019, EEA said. 

“To breathe clean air should be a fundamental human right. It is a necessary condition for healthy and productive societies. Even with improvements in air quality over the past years in our region, we still have a long way to go,” WHO Regional Director for Europe, Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, said in a statement. “At WHO, we welcome the work done by the EEA.”

The EU has a plan in place, the EU Zero Pollution Action Plan, that seeks to reduce by 55% by 2030 the number of premature deaths due to the exposure of air pollution. EEA’s report argues the bloc is on track, as deaths were decreased by a third from 2005 to 2019, thanks to investments in cleaner agriculture and industrial practices.

A study earlier this year showed that we lose two years of life with the current levels of air pollution, a figure that reaches up to five years for those living in the most polluted cities. This means that global average life expectancy drops from 74 to 72 just because of air pollution, according to the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) by Chicago University. 

Making an example of Portugal

While deaths are decreasing in the EU, the European Commission (EC) still wants to crack down on countries that are guilty of foul play — in particular, Portugal. The EC decided to sue the country for “continually and persistently” exceeding the annual NO2 limit in parts of Lisbon and Porto, the country’s largest cities. 

In those areas, air pollution mainly comes from road traffic, especially diesel vehicles, the EC said. The country had already been given a notice on the issue in May 2019 and then in February 2020, asking it to adopt the necessary measures. But efforts by the government have so far been “unsatisfactory and insufficient,” a statement from the EC reads. 

The EU is pushing for the country to reduce NO2 emissions by limiting access to high-polluting cars to the city centers of Lisbon and Porto. At the same time, cleaner and electric vehicles could make a difference. Lisbon took a first step by investing in cycling, including subsidies to help people buy bikes and cycle sharing schemes, but this is just the tip of what is needed to truly reduce these dangerous emissions.

Before leaving the EU, the UK had also been found guilty by the European Court of Justice of “systematically and persistently” breaching air pollution limits.

All in all, despite being one of the more environmentally conscious areas on the globe, Europe still has a long way to go if it wants to reduce the burden of air pollution.

WHO tightens air quality guidelines. If we want to save lives, we need to reduce pollution

Air pollution is one of the biggest environmental and health problems in the world. An estimated 9% of deaths globally are attributed to it, making it the 4th biggest risk factor on the planet. Up to seven million people die prematurely every year because of air pollution, according to WHO estimations.

For the first time since 2005, the World Health Organization (WHO) strengthened its air quality guidelines, calling on governments to take urgent action on reducing pollution and improving air quality.

Image credit: World Bank.

The new guidelines provide “clear evidence” of the damage caused by air pollution on human health, at even lower concentrations than previously understood, the WHO said. They recommend new air quality levels that are necessary to protect the health of populations, which, if followed, could save millions of lives on a global scale. 

Almost all air quality guidelines (AQG) levels were adjusted downwards, as there has been an increase of evidence over the health effects of air pollution. With climate change, air pollution is one of the most significant environmental threats to human health. Every year, millions die prematurely or loose months of life because of it. 

In adults, stroke and heart disease are the most common causes of premature death linked to outdoor air pollution, with growth evidence of other effects such as diabetes. In children, the list also includes respiratory infections, asthma and reduce lung growth. This puts air pollution on a par with other global health risks such as smoking. 

“Air pollution is a threat to health in all countries, but it hits people in low- and middle-income countries the hardest,” WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said in a media statement. “The new guidelines are an evidence-based and practical tool for improving the quality of the air on which all life depends.”

The key pollutants

The guidelines recommend air quality levels for pollutants such as carbon monoxide (CO), sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), and particulate matter (PM). The risks of particulate matter equal to or smaller than 10 and 2.5 microns in diameter are particularly relevant, as these particles can penetrate into the lungs and enter the bloodstream. 

These small airbone particles are mainly generated by fuel combustion in different sectors, such as energy (fossil fuels), agriculture, wildfires, and transportation. Some particles such as smoke or dirt, are dark or big enough in order to be seen with the naked eye, while others are so small that can only be seen with a microscope. 

The new guidelines say that annual PM2.5 concentrations shouldn’t be higher than 5 micrograms per cubic meter, which is half the limit that was being used until now. This is because it’s becoming clearer that long exposure to concentrations even that low can contribute to negative health impacts, such as heart and lung diseases and stroke.

In fact, a study earlier this year showed that the average global citizen loses 2.2 years of life with the current levels of air pollution. We are all exposed to more than three times the air pollution considered acceptable by the WHO, with life expectancy declining from 74 to 72 years. Southeast Asia is one of the most affected regions. 

“Annually, WHO estimates that millions of deaths are caused by the effects of air pollution, mainly from noncommunicable diseases. Clean air should be a fundamental human right and a necessary condition for healthy and productive societies.,” WHO Regional Director for Europe, Hans Henri Kluge, said in a media statement. 

The new guidelines come almost a month away from the COP26 climate change summit in the United Kingdom. The WHO climate change head Maria Neira told reporters in a press conference that they are getting ready for a report to highlight the “enormous health benefits” of reducing air pollution through climate change mitigation.

Air pollution is reducing our life expectancy by more than two years

The average global citizen loses 2.2 years of life with the current levels of air pollution, with residents in the most polluted cities lose up to five years of their lives, according to a new study. While bleak, the researchers behind the findings say this is an opportunity to improve, especially after the significant improvements in China over recent years.

Image credit: UN.

The Air Quality Life Index (AQLI), compiled by researchers at the University of Chicago, found that air pollution remains a severe problem in many parts of the world, despite the momentary improvements brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. The researchers largely blamed fossil fuels from power plants, vehicles, and other industrial sources.

The researchers work with existing high-resolution satellite data, which helps to understand the level of air pollution. They then use ground-level monitors to assess the level of accuracy. Using this information, they are able to estimate the number of years people lose because of exposure to air pollution surpassing acceptable levels. 

“During a truly unprecedented year where some people accustomed to breathing dirty air experienced clean air and others accustomed to clean air saw their air dirty, it became acutely apparent the important role policy has played and could play in reducing fossil fuels,” Michael Greenstone, creator of the AQLI, said in a statement. 

The report found that we are all exposed to more than three times the air pollution considered acceptable by the World Health Organization, with life expectancy dropping from 74 to 72 years. Levels of PM 2.5, fine particulate matter, are at 32 micrograms per cubic meter on a global average, instead of the WHO advised 10. 

Particulate matter, small airborne particles, is mainly generated by sources related to combustion such as wildfires, transportation, industrial emissions, and chemical reactions of pollutants. This has turned air pollution into a leading cause of death around the world, killing more than car collisions, smoking, or HIV/Aids. 

A regional outlook

Recent changes in Europe.

The researchers highlighted the significant progress of China in recent years, which shows that air quality can be improved in the short term with strong policies. The country began a “war against pollution” in 2013 and since has reduced its particulate pollution by 29%. This has added 1.5 years to the life expectancy of Chinese citizens. 

Other countries could achieve the same level or even better levels of progress, even the most polluted ones, the researchers argued. In Southeast Asia, air pollution is now a major threat in big cities like Bangkok and Jakarta. The average resident there could gain two to five years of life expectancy if pollution levels are reduced so as to meet the WHO guidelines.

In Central and West Africa, the report found that the effects of air pollution on life expectancy match those of well-known threats such as malaria and HIV. In the Niger Delta, for example, with plenty of illegal oil refineries operating in the area, life expectancy is 4.7 years lower than what it could be if the WHO guidelines would be met. 

Meanwhile, in Latin America, more than half of the 611 million people are exposed to unhealthy levels of air pollution. Although the average gain in life expectancy from cleaning the air is relatively low across the area (roughly 5 months), the number is substantially higher in Latin America’s hotspots. For example, it’s 4.7 years in Lima, Peru.

“The events of the past year remind us that air pollution is not a problem that developing countries alone must solve,” Ken Lee, the director of the AQLI, said in a statement. “Fossil-fuel driven air pollution is a global problem that requires strong policies at every front—including from the world climate negotiators who are meeting in the coming months.”

The report can be found here. 

‘No significant difference’ in air pollution exposure between rush-hour commuters and others

People who commute during rush hour are obviously exposed to more traffic-related air pollution than those who do not. However, a new study comes to show that the difference is not very meaningful, or statistically significant.

Image via Pixabay.

Air pollution is bad for you, we all know that. But we all need to make rent, so we brave the streets to get to work on time, often through engine exhaust, dust, and other pollutants. In order to gauge just how much more significant this exposure is during rush hour compared to other times of day, researchers at the George Mason University College (GMU) College of Health and Human Services monitored commuters during their trips using personal air pollution monitors.

Although rush-hour commuters are definitely exposed to more air pollution from traffic than their peers, they explain, the difference is not that large.

Just as bad

“This is one of the first studies to utilize in-vehicle monitoring, specifically on-board diagnostics data loggers, to understand real-world commuting behaviors for environmental health,” said Dr. Jenna Krall, assistant professor at the GMU and lead author of the study. “Linking these data with personal air pollution monitoring allowed us to better understand how commuter characteristics are associated with sources of air pollution exposures.”

The team wanted to understand how factors such as departure time, frequency, and commute length influence our exposure to air pollution. For the study, they employed personal air pollution monitors to see how much air pollution different participants were actually exposed to over their commute, then mixing this in with the time and route they took. They were particularly interested in exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5), which in this context mainly come from traffic-related sources including exhaust, brake wear, and salts used to de-ice roads.

All in all, the study included 46 women in northern Virginia who commuted using their personal vehicles and were monitored over a 48-hour period. The authors found that differences between those commuting during rush hour and the rest were not statistically significant.

Still, the findings are especially useful in the context we find ourselves in right now. The coronavirus generally attacks our respiratory system, which is most exposed to air pollution. We’re also seeing a gradual easing away of measures implemented during the pandemic, and more people are getting called back to the office from home. Understanding the effect of air pollution and patterns of exposure to it could go a long way towards preserving public health.

That being said, the findings still lack a proper background into which they can integrate. Commuters form incredibly complex systems, and there’s still a lot of unknowns regarding this behavior.

“The current research cannot tell us whether modifying commutes, for example by avoiding highways or commuting outside of rush hour, will lower traffic pollution exposures for commuters. More research is needed to determine what changes would be effective to lower exposures,” says Krall.

The paper “Commuter types identified using clustering and their associations with source-specific PM2.5” has been published in the journal Environmental Research.

Reducing climate emissions would save millions of lives from air pollution

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions would not only limit temperature increase and sea level rise — but also significantly reduce air pollution worldwide, preventing more than one million annual premature deaths over the next decade, according to a new study.

Image credit: Flickr / UN

The Paris Agreement, a global climate treaty to limit the temperature increase to 2ºC or ideally 1.5ºC, was signed by every country on Earth. It requires every participating country to submit a climate pledge (known as NDC) in which they outline their steps to achieve the global target. NDCs are non-binding, flexible and variate substantially between different countries. 

One factor not addressed by the NDCs is the influence of atmospheric particulate matter (aerosols). Both anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) and aerosols alter Earth’s climate, but most countries only consider GHGs in their NDCs. However, the two are closely tied, as human activities simultaneously produce both.

From a climate change perspective, the influence of aerosols is complex. Aerosols typically only have a lifetime of 5–10 days, but their impacts are pervasive due to their continuous emission. They can directly absorb and scatter radiation, influence the formation and evolution of clouds and modify surface albedo. 

“Joint consideration of greenhouse gases and aerosols is critical,” Pascal Polonik, lead author of the new paper, said in a statement. “Polluting particles, known as aerosols, are emitted in tandem with greenhouse gases but aren’t accounted for. While all greenhouse gas emissions might be thought of as unambiguously harmful, aerosols are more complicated.”

In a new study Polonik and his colleagues explored the tradeoffs countries would face by taking aerosols into consideration while concurrently making CO2 cuts to implement climate pledges. Their model provides a country-by-country breakdown of the impacts of aerosol reductions. 

They looked at outcomes under three scenarios. One prioritized temperature by targeting industries that contribute the most to global warming, another one prioritized air quality, targeting aerosol reduction to the dirtiest sectors, and the last one, named “politically expedient,” reduced emissions from all economic sectors equally. 

Under all three, the researchers found that by 2030 one million premature deaths would be prevented ever year. This shows the importance of addressing climate change while jointly tackling air pollution, they argued. Exposure to fine particulate matter (known as PM2.5) has wide-ranging adverse health effects on human health.

“Implementing cuts equally and making each industry do their fair share may be the easiest way to implement climate policy in a democratic society like the U.S. where there are many competing political interests,” co-author Kate Ricke said in a statement. “However, there are real benefits to being thoughtful about how aerosols factor into climate policy outcomes.”

So the good news is that cutting down on our emissions could have even more benefits than initially thought. The bad news is that we’re not really doing a good job at reducing emissions so far.

Countries are currently very far from meeting the Paris Agreement targets. They would have to collectively increase their climate action threefold to be in line with the 2ºC goal, UN estimated. Meanwhile, to be in line with the 1.5ºC target, they would have to do so fivefold. The world is now heading to global warming of about 3ºC based on the current climate pledges.

The study was published in the journal Earth’s Future. 

Researchers create automatic method to detect air pollution hotspots

Imagine there could be a way to autonomously identify hotspots of heavy air pollution, city block by city block. Governments could then detect problem areas and develop targeted measures and achieve optimal results. Researchers at Duke University have developed just that: a method that uses machine learning, satellite images, and weather data to track localized PM2.5 pollution.

Image credit: Flickr / UN

Air pollution is by far one of the most severe environmental problems, on all scales from local to global. Exposure to fine particulate matter (also known as PM2.5) has wide-ranging adverse health effects on human health, with adverse effects on cardiovascular, cardiopulmonary, and respiratory wellness, to list just a few problems. It can lead to higher risks of mortality and loss of life expectancy.

Satellite data have been most commonly used for mapping PM2.5 at high resolution. With the help of the recent rapid advancements in satellite sensors and rise in computing power, a handful of satellite-based methods have succeeded in estimating ambient PM2.5 concentrations at sub-km levels with low uncertainties. But it’s not all rosy.

“Setting up sensor networks is time-consuming and costly, and the only thing that driving a sensor around really tells you is that roads are big sources of pollutants. Being able to find local hotspots of air pollution using satellite images is hugely advantageous, Mike Bergin, professor at Duke and co-author of the study, said in a statement. 

Bergin and the team of researchers wanted to further look into PM2.5 pollution but they could only access data on a county-by-county level — which really isn’t enough resolution. While valuable, this information doesn’t allow to look into a specific neighborhood close to a coal-fired plant, for example. Ground stations are expensive to build and maintain, so most cities only have a handful of them. So instead, Bergin and colleagues looked for an alternative.

In previous studies, the researchers showed that satellite imagery, weather data, and machine learning could provide PM2.5 measurements on a small scale. Now, the team has improved their methods and taught the algorithm to automatically find hotspots and cool spots of air pollution with a resolution of 300 meters. This is the average length of a New York City block, and sufficient to draw clearer conclusions about where the pollution is actually coming from. 

The new development was made possible thanks to a technique called residual learning. The algorithm created by the researchers first uses weather data to estimate the levels of PM2.5. Then it measures the difference between these estimates and the actual levels of PM2.5 and teaches itself to use satellite images to make its predictions better.

“Hotspots are notoriously difficult to find in maps of PM levels because some days the air is just really bad across the entire city, and it is really difficult to tell if there are true differences between them or if there’s just a problem with the image contrast,” David Carlson, co- author, said in a statement. “It’s a big advantage to be able to find a specific neighborhood that tends to stay higher or lower than everywhere else.”

While the methods it teaches itself can’t transfer from city to city, the algorithm should easily teach itself new methods in different locations, the researchers argued. Cities might evolve over time in both weather and pollution patterns but the algorithm shouldn’t have any trouble evolving with them. Plus, if air quality sensors improve as expected, the algorithm should also get better with time.

The study was published in the journal Remote Sensing. 

Outdoor pollution is affecting indoor air quality. Here’s how

Elevated air pollution events such as fireworks or wildfires can also affect indoor air a new study, shows. The finding is especially relevant as many are spending more time indoors amid the coronavirus pandemic, with the researchers calling for ways to mitigate contaminant intrusion such as filter upgrades.

Image credit: Pixabay / Creative Commons

In the US, more than 141 million people live in areas with unhealthy levels of air pollution, and pollutant exposure rates are more likely to be determined by race and socioeconomic status. Elsewhere, things are even worse: most of the world’s most polluted cities are in India or China. While most people are aware of the harms of air pollution, fewer people are aware that indoor air quality may be worse than outdoor air quality.

Humans usually spend 80% or more of their time indoors, and as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people will are working from home, and will continue to do so further into the future — which means more exposure to indoor air.

Previous studies have described air quality in urban settings and how the built environment interacts with pollution-specific events. Now, Daniel Mendoza and a team of researchers used a network of research-grade fine particulate matter (PM2.5) sensors placed both inside and outside a building to quantify emissions trends around this pollutant. PM2.5 is of significant interest as studies have shown its contribution to a wide array of illnesses such as heart disease and depression.

The researchers studied the short- and long-term relationship between indoor and outdoor air quality in an urban building in Utah’s Salt Lake Valley. They captured three different types of elevated pollution events: winter inversion, seasonal wildfire, and local fireworks. Despite the belief that indoors will protect from poor air quality, they found that indoor conditions can be just as harmful to human health.

The indoor air quality sensor reached “yellow” levels during a wintertime inversion event in December, while the air quality index outdoors reached orange and red levels. In all, the pollution levels inside were about 30% of what they were outside. For Mendoza, this wasn’t surprising. Only 20% of the air pollution during inversions comes directly from combustion exhaust and the rest is secondary.

Something similar happened when three active wildfires were burning in California. Indoor air pollution reached about 78% of outside pollution levels. For two consecutive days, “indoor air quality reached levels considered problematic for health compromised populations and nearly reached levels considered unsafe for all populations,” the researchers wrote.

The study also looked at the impact of indoor air pollution from fireworks events. The smoke from fireworks is somewhere between inversion pollution and wildfires, the researchers explained. It has primary smoke particles as well as gases that can combine to produce secondary particulates, which can come from the chemicals used to produce fireworks’ bright colors.

Air quality sharply dropped once fireworks shows began and stayed in the red range, with spikes into the purple “very unhealthy” range, for about three hours. Indoor air quality reached orange levels, registering about 30% of the outdoor air pollution. “It was only after 8 AM that indoor air quality returned to pre-fireworks levels,” the researchers wrote.

The researchers are now doing a follow-up study, installing an air quality sensor on the rooftop of the Utah State Hospital. Two indoor air quality sensors were placed in rooms belonging to the dormitory and daycare wings as they have different air handlers, assessing the impact of different ventilation and filtration technologies on indoor air quality.

The study was published in the journal Science of the Total Environment.

One species of the cotoneaster plant could help absorb traffic pollution

New work at the Royal Horticultural Society and the University of Reading, both in the UK, found that a hedge plant common to southwestern China can help keep the air clean of car exhaust.

Image credits Henryk Niestrój.

The plant is known as Franchet’s or orange cotoneaster (Cotoneaster franchetii), and is particularly effective at filtering our air pollutants associated with automobile exhaust. The findings come as part of an ongoing, 10-year research effort that aims to understand which plants could do the most good in urban settings against pollution.

A good plan(t)

The team has been hard at work testing the many species of bush, shrub, and tree that make common appearances in urban areas across the world. During that time, they haven’t shied away from looking even at the more modest plants. This helped them show that some of the most effective plants at protecting against air pollution, as well as the traits that make them so.

As far as hedges are concerned, a dense canopy and rough, hairy leaves make for the best pollution scrubber. The cotoneaster definitely fits this description, the team explains, so they tested it.

All in all, Franchet’s cotoneaster was roughly 20% more effective at cleaning the air of pollutants around busy street sections than any other hedge in the study. The authors note that they didn’t see any particular difference between it and other hedge species on streets with low traffic, however. This latter finding suggests that different plant species could be more useful in different areas, we just need to learn to play to their strengths, so to speak. City planners as well as residents can benefit from such knowledge.

Franchet’s cotoneaster itself would be ideal for homeowners whose property abuts busy streets. The plant would also be a good choice for city planners to line such avenues with. In both cases, it will help lower the amount of pollutants individuals will be exposed to in such areas.

Today, Franchet’s cotoneaster isn’t very common in areas outside its natural habitat, but it’s not absent, either. Several cultivars of this plant were taken overseas for private collections or their aesthetic value. As an invasive plant species, it’s most common in the wild around areas of habitation from where it escaped. It usually grows under 3 meters tall with relatively small, oval leaves with a shiny green top and white-felted underside. It flowers in June with pink or white petals which give way to red-orange berries. However, since there are many cultivars of this species, it is quite hard to give more details for identifying it.

The paper “Evaluating the Effectiveness of Urban Hedges as Air Pollution Barriers: Importance of Sampling Method, Species Characteristics and Site Location” has been published in the journal Environments.

A deadly smog covers much of India, threatening 400 million people

A widespread haze and pollution that has affected large parts of India since October is likely to remain there for at least another month, according to a forecast by the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS). This means people will continue to be exposed to dangerous emissions that can significantly reduce their lifespan and cause multiple health issues.

Smog on Delhi, India’s capital. Image credit: Flickr / Ninara

The phenomenon has affected several countries across South Asia but India has been the most severely hit, especially in its north-eastern areas. High levels of fine particulate matter known as PM2.5 were reported in cities like New Delhi, India, Lahore, Pakistan, and Kathmandu, Nepal. The air quality in New Delhi has remained in the “poor” category since January, worsened by the current cold temperatures which favor the appearance of smog.

Mark Parrington from Copernicus said in a statement:

“Degraded air quality is common across northern India in winter, especially throughout the Indo-Gangetic Plain, due in part to emissions from anthropogenic activities such as traffic, cooking, heating and crop stubble burning which are able to accumulate over the region due to topography and cold stagnant conditions.”

Scientists from Copernicus regularly monitor air pollution using satellite information, ground-based observation, and detailed computer models. They have been regularly tracking the phenomenon in South Asia and identified sulfate and organic matter as the main contributors to the haze. They believe it will come to an end in spring thanks to warmer temperatures and changes in the weather.

Many studies have shown that chronic exposure to harmful gases and small particles such as PM2.5 can have adverse health effects, reducing life expectancy by more than eight months on average and by two years in the most polluted cities and regions. A study earlier this year even suggested air pollution could be responsible for 1 in 5 adult deaths worldwide.

Image credits: Copernicus.

Cities across India frequently make the top of the ranking of the most polluted cities worldwide, and this isn’t random. New Delhi and many others are subject to a severe smog season every year as burning farmland combines with fossil fuel pollution, enveloping urban centers during cold months when demand for heat is high and air circulation is reduced.

Copernicus’ report follows a recent study by Harvard University researchers, who found that 2.5 million Indians died from air pollution in 2018. The study concluded that previous estimates of deaths caused by long-term exposure to airborne toxic particles were too low. Instead of the previously estimated 4.2 million global deaths, they said the number was closer to eight million.

Previous research used satellite and surface observations to estimate the average global annual concentrations of airborne particulate matter – neither of which allows to distinguish the difference between fossil fuel emissions and those from other sources. To overcome this challenge, the Harvard researchers used a global 3-D model of atmospheric chemistry called GEOS-Chem.

“Often, when we discuss the dangers of fossil fuel combustion, it’s in the context of carbon dioxide and climate change and overlook the potential health impact of the pollutants co-emitted with greenhouse gases,” author Joel Schwartz said in a statement. “By quantifying the health consequences of fossil fuel combustion, we can send a clear message to policymakers and stakeholders of the benefits of a transition to alternative energy sources.”

Study finds dangerous air pollution levels in subway systems in the US

The pandemic might not be the single reason why you should consider avoid riding the subway. Researchers found that commuters using the subway system in major cities in the United States are exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution, according to air samples taken earlier this year. New York and New Jersey were the most affected.

The NYT subway. Image credit: Flickr / Spencer Thomas

Subway systems are the veins and arteries of cities, moving people where they need to go. Their speed, accessibility, and affordability offer an alternative to often chaotic city streets. Globally, in 2017, approximately 168 million people used a metropolitan train daily, and further growth in the subway system is anticipated over the next few years. But these urban veins are starting to get a bit clogged.

Previous studies have found airborne particulate matter (PM) concentrations within subways several times higher than PM levels in ambient air. Heavy metals have been shown to be major constituents of airborne subway PM, such as iron, copper, and manganese. Studies have also demonstrated that pollution is generated by the interaction of a train’s electrical current collector shoe with the supply rail. Sources other than the friction of brakes and brushing of wheels may be important as well, particularly in busy subways where heavy maintenance machinery operate at night. Commuters can inhale the pollutants while waiting on the platform or when riding the subway train. All in all, we knew the subway air is pretty bad — but it’s probably worse than you imagine.

Researchers from the New York University (NYU) measured air quality samples in 71 stations at morning and evening rush hours in Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. They selected one or more specific transit lines within the system, a number of stations along each line, and aboveground sites for ambient sample collection

They found that the levels of the tiny specks of pollution known as PM2.5 were well above nationally determined safe daily levels of 35 micrograms per cubic meter in each of the cities’ subway systems. New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) system had 251 micrograms per cubic meter, the study showed, followed by Washington DC with 145 micrograms per cubic meter.

“As riders of one of the busiest, and apparently dirtiest, metro systems in the country, New Yorkers, in particular, should be concerned about the toxins they are inhaling as they wait for trains to arrive,” co-senior study author Terry Gordon, PhD, a professor in the Department of Environmental Medicine at NYU Grossman, said in a statement.

The worst pollution spot was Christopher Street, a subway station in Manhattan that connects New York and New Jersey. It had a particle pollution level of 1,499 micrograms per cubic meter, about 77 times higher than the above-ground pollution. Such a pollution level is more commonly found near wildfires or building demolition, the researchers said.

Making a commute to and from Christopher Street increases the risk of an adverse cardiovascular event by 10%, the study showed. Other stations that also had significant levels of pollution were Broadway in Boston, Second Avenue in New York City, and 30th Street in Philadelphia among the most polluted stops in the US north-east. Each of these subway systems transported millions every day before Covid-19.

The pollutants were mainly formed by iron and organic carbon, a chemical produced from the breakdown of fossil fuels or decaying plants and animals. The researchers said it’s not fully clear why pollution in subways is worse than above ground. While the open air can remove some of the fumes from vehicles, underground stations are usually poorly ventilated, they added.

Following the study, the researchers plan to investigate sources of subway station air contamination, such as exhaust given off by diesel maintenance locomotives, whipped up dust from the remains of dead rodents, and poor ventilation as potential culprits. They suggested transit authorities look at why some subway systems are more polluted than others so to adopt better practices.

The study was published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

Air pollution could be responsible for 1 in 5 adult deaths worldwide

New research from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health explains that fossil fuel pollution could be responsible for 1 in 5 adult deaths worldwide.

Image credits Alexander Droeger.

Discussions around the use of fossil fuels today mostly revolve around their environmental impact, as well they should. But the life around us isn’t the only one that has to bear the costs of our reliance on such substances — their use, a new paper reports, has a human cost as well.

According to the authors, pollution generated by the burning of fossil fuels was responsible for around 8 million premature deaths in 2018, roughly 20% of all adult deaths worldwide in that year. The most heavily polluted areas saw the lion’s share of these deaths.

Burn hard die young

Half of those premature deaths were recorded in China and India, with Bangladesh, Indonesia, Japan, and the United States making up the rest. The deadly effects of fossil fuel pollution come down to the tiny particles (PM, particulate matter) generated by the burning of oil, gas, and especially coal. In around six Asian nations, such pollution accounts for over one-quarter of all mortality, the team adds.

However, that also means that lowering our use of fossil fuels, or at least finding ways to keep air quality in check, can prevent all those excess deaths.

All in all, air pollution is responsible for reducing the average lifespan by 4.1 years in China, 3.9 years in India, 3.8 years in Pakistan, and around 8 months on average in Europe. This goes to show how hard air pollution impacts Asia compared to both more developed and less developed areas. The figures reported in this paper are almost double those of previous estimates.

Previous estimates of deaths related to fossil fuel pollution were based on satellite data and surface-level observations to determine concentrations of PM2.5, the most deadly kind of particulate matter. These estimates, most recently provided by World Health Organization through the Global Burden of Disease, puts this number at around 7 million, with around 4 million of those being caused by outdoor pollution.

One limitation of these previous studies, however, is that they cannot determine the origin of the particles in question — these could come from burning fossil fuel as well as dust or wildfires. To get a better idea of their origin (and thus, how much of the problem is caused by fossil fuels) the team used GEOS-Chem, a 3-D atmospheric chemistry model, to look at the Earth’s surface in 50-by-60-kilometer (30-by-36-mile) blocks.

“Rather than rely on averages spread across large regions, we wanted to map where the pollution is and where people live,” said lead author Karn Vohra, a graduate student at the University of Birmingham.

Next, they fed in data regarding carbon emissions from several key fields, as well as NASA simulations of air circulation. After they calculated PM2.5 levels for each block, they used a novel risk assessment model to estimate how much damage these would cause public health, leading to the reported figures. Among the most common effects of air pollution, the team lists coronary heart disease and stroke (around half), followed by lung diseases and non-communicable conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure for most of the rest.

The paper is awaiting publication in the journal Environmental Letters and is currently available on Harvard’s page.

Air pollution is so bad in Bangladesh that it saved a man from deportation

Air pollution is so bad in some countries that it’s now affecting court cases. A court in France decided to prevent the deportation of a Bangladeshi man with asthma, as his health condition would significantly deteriorate if sent back to the polluted air of his native country.

Image credit: Flickr / Joiseyshowaa

While the ruling is thought to be a first for France, environmental concerns are set to become a common theme in global migration as the climate and pollution crises continue to deepen. Forecasts vary from 25 million to 1 billion environmental migrants by 2050, moving either within their countries or across borders, on a permanent or temporary basis.

The 40-year-old man from Bangladesh currently lives in the French city of Toulouse and was refused the renewal of his residence permit in June 2019, risking deportation to his country of birth. Nevertheless, the Bordeaux Administrative Court’s Court of Appeal granted him foreigner status in December, considering his health condition.

In the appeal, the man’s lawyer explained that he suffers a severe form of asthma, which requires extensive medication and treatment. His health condition has also led to severe sleep apnea, requiring him to sleep with specialized ventilation equipment each night. The equipment isn’t available in Bangladesh, the lawyer wrote.

“This is the first time in France that a court has taken into account environmental criterion to justify a person benefitting from the status of a sick foreigner,” Ludovic Rivière, the lawyer, told InfoMigrants. “Because it is obvious that the environmental conditions in Bangladesh today make it possible to affirm that it would be illusory for my client to be treated there, it would amount to sending him to certain death.”

Bangladesh has been repeatedly listed as one of the world’s most polluted countries regards to fine particulate air pollution (PM2.5), a term used to describe small particles and droplets in the atmosphere, such as dust, and particulates from vehicle exhausts or industrial activity. Exposure to it can have severe health consequences such as lung cancer and heart diseases.

The country ranked 179th out of 180 in the world for air quality in 2020, according to the Environmental Performance Index. The concentration of fine particles in the air is six times the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommended maximum. Air pollution was a high-risk factor in the 572,600 deaths in the country caused by noncommunicable diseases in 2018, according to WHO figures.

Nearly a quarter of the global population lives in four South Asian countries among the world’s most polluted: Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan, according to the Air Quality Life Index report. People living in these countries could see their lives cut short by five years on average, after being exposed to pollution levels that are now 44% higher than they were two decades ago.

Gary Fuller, an air pollution scientist at Imperial College London, told The Guardian that this was the first case he was aware of in which the environment was mentioned by a count in an extradition hearing. The case is part of a growing agenda about everyone’s right to a healthy environment, he added.

As the state of the planet’s environments continues to degrade, similar cases can be expected to be seen in court. A UK coroner also made legal history last month by ruling that air pollution was one of the causes of death of Ella Kissi-Debrah, a nine-year-old girl from London who died in 2013 with severe asthma and acute respiratory failure.

What if we kept the air as clean as it was in lockdown? Here’s what we’d have to gain

Cities that can maintain the air quality improvements seen during the coronavirus pandemic over the next few years would enjoy significant health and economic benefits, according to a new study, focused in New York City.

According to the researchers, this shows the need for wider public policies to address air pollution, and also potential solutions that can be implemented.

Image credit: Flickr / Andreas Komodromos

Like other cities around the world, New York City experienced a sharp decline in air pollution during the COVID-19 shutdown period. From March 15 to May 15, much of New York shut down, as many stayed indoors, not using their cars, and most shops and factories were closed down. It came at a high social and economic cost, but the city’s pollution was reduced sharply.

For a group of researchers from Columbia University, this provided a unique opportunity to simulate a scenario in which the city-wide air quality improvement during the shutdown was sustained over the five-year period, 2021 through 2025, allowing to estimate the public health and economic benefits.

They focused on fine particulate matter (PM2.5), tiny particles or droplets that can be found in the air, and modeled potential future health benefits to children and adults. The analysis considered outcomes in children that have not generally been accounted for in clean air benefits assessments as well as adult mortality.

Particulate matter mostly comes from combustion-related sources such as industrial emissions, transportation, wildfires, and chemical reactions of pollutants in the atmosphere. This has turned air pollution into the leading environmental cause of death around the world, according to the World Health Organization.

The researchers found a city-wide 23% improvement in PM2.5 levels during the COVID-19 shutdown months in NYC, compared to the average level for those months in 2015–2018 (the business-as-usual period). Based on the data for 2020, they analyze what would happen if we’d keep the same level of PM2.5 emissions for the following five-year period.

According to their results, thousands of lives would be saved and even more severe diseases will be prevented, with associated economic benefits ranging from $31.8 billion to $77 billion, the study showed. That’s quite a big benefit, researchers note.

“Air quality improvements from the shutdown happened as the result of a tragic situation. However, our hypothetical clean air scenario could be achieved through air pollution and climate mitigation policies, including those that support low carbon modes of transportation,” said in a statement study lead Frederica Perera.

The researchers also found that richer neighborhoods and neighborhoods with a larger Black or Latino population tended to have proportionally higher benefits from reduced PM2.5 concentrations, compared to neighborhoods with lower levels of poverty or Black or Latino populations.

The study had a significant limitation as the researchers couldn’t fully assess heterogeneity in exposure reduction based on monitoring site-specific improvement ratios. Nearly half of the available monitors that we were able to access had incomplete data for the COVID-19 shutdown period.

“This analysis should incentivize policymakers to strengthen initiatives on climate change and air pollution. The disparities across neighborhoods in underlying risk factors for air-pollution-related health outcomes should also motivate equitable policies that address these risk factors,” the researchers wrote

The study was published in the journal Environmental Research.

The Clean Air Act in the US saved 1.5 billion bird lives over the past 4 decades

Pollution regulations in the U.S. are helping people and birds both, a new study reports. The findings showcase how federal measures meant to reduce ozone pollution likely prevented around 1.5 billion bird deaths over the past 40 years, roughly one-fifth of the US’ current bird population.

Image via Pixabay.

Keeping our environment clean and tidy benefits everybody quite literally. The effects of pollution on public health have been investigated in the past, but it also affects wildlife. The current study comes to flesh out our understanding of its effects on the general health of bird species.

In this together

“Our research shows that the benefits of environmental regulation have likely been underestimated,” says Ivan Rudik, a lead author and Ruth and William Morgan Assistant Professor at Cornell’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management.

“Reducing pollution has positive impacts in unexpected places and provides an additional policy lever for conservation efforts.”

The study was conducted by scientists at Cornell University and the University of Oregon. They based their research on a series of models from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird program, which they ran alongside ground-level pollution data, to track monthly changes in bird abundance, air quality, and regulation status for 3,214 U.S. counties over a span of 15 years.

The researchers then analyzed how these trends were impacted by the NOx (nitrogen oxide) Budget Trading Program, an initiative of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency meant to limit summertime ozone emissions from large industrial sources.

Ozone is a gas that occurs in nature and is also produced by human activities, including by power plants and cars. It can be good or bad. A layer of ozone in the upper atmosphere protects the Earth from the harmful ultraviolet rays of the sun. But ground-level ozone is hazardous and is the main pollutant in smog. 

The results show that ozone pollution is most damaging to small migratory birds including sparrows, warblers, and finches; these make up around 86% of all land bird species in North America, the team explains. Ozone damages these animals’ respiratory tracts and harms their food sources.

“Not only can ozone cause direct physical damage to birds, but it also can compromise plant health and reduce numbers of the insects that birds consume,” explains study author Amanda Rodewald, Garvin Professor at the Cornell Department of Natural Resources and the Environment and Director of the Center for Avian Population Studies at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

“Not surprisingly, birds that cannot access high-quality habitat or food resources are less likely to survive or reproduce successfully. The good news here is that environmental policies intended to protect human health return important benefits for birds too.”

Previous research has found that bird populations in North America have shrunk by roughly 3 billion individuals since 1970. However, without regulations such as the Clean Air Act, the team estimates that we could have seen some 1.5 billion more bird deaths over the same timeline. The study brings forth the “first large-scale evidence” that ozone pollution can lead to wildlife mortality, and that measures implemented to protect humans from air pollution can also bring significant benefits to birds.

“Regulations intended to save human lives also bring significant conservation benefits to birds,” says Catherine Kling, Tisch University Professor at the Cornell Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management and Faculty Director at Cornell’s Atkinson Center for Sustainability. “This work contributes to our ever increasing understanding of the connectedness of environmental health and human health.”

The paper “Conservation Co-Benefits from Air Pollution Regulation: Evidence from Birds” has been published in the journal The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Old used cars are being exported to poor nations, increasing air pollution and traffic collisions

Rich countries are dumping millions of highly polluting, used cars in developing nations, according to a report by the United Nations. This is contributing significantly to air pollution and hindering efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change, especially in Africa, the authors concluded.

Credit Flickr Mobilius

The report by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) showed that 14 million used light-duty vehicles were exported worldwide from Europe, Japan, and the United States between 2015 and 2018. Some 80% went to low- and middle-income countries, with more than half going to Africa.

The fast-growing global vehicle fleet is a major contributor to air pollution and climate change; globally, the transport sector is responsible for nearly a quarter of energy-related global greenhouse gas emissions. Vehicle emissions are a significant source of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and nitrogen oxides.

“Cleaning up the global vehicle fleet is a priority to meet global and local air quality and climate targets,” said Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP. “Over the years, developed countries have increasingly exported their used vehicles to developing countries; because this largely happens unregulated, this has become the export of polluting vehicles.”

The report, based on an in-depth analysis of 146 countries, found that some two-thirds of them have weak or very weak policies to regulate used vehicle imports. However, it also showed that countries that set up rules to control the influx gained access to high-quality used vehicles, including hybrid and electric cars.

For example, Morocco only permits the importation of vehicles less than five years old and those meeting the EURO4 European vehicles emission standard. As a result, it only receives relatively advanced and clean used vehicles from Europe. Recently a group of 15 African countries announced strict new rules for vehicle emissions and fuel efficiency.

African countries imported the largest number of used vehicles (40%) in the period studied, followed by countries in Eastern Europe (24%), Asia-Pacific (15%), the Middle East (12%) and Latin America (9%), the report showed. The Netherlands is one of the main exporters through its ports.

Most vehicles were between 16 and 20 years old, and most fell below EURO4 European Union vehicle emission standards. For example, the average age of used vehicles exported to the Gambia was close to 19 years old, while a quarter of used vehicles exported to Nigeria were almost 20 years old.

“These results show that urgent action needs to be taken to improve the quality of used vehicles exported from Europe. The Netherlands cannot address this issue alone. Therefore, I will call for a coordinated European approach, and a close cooperation between European and African governments” Stientje Van Veldhoven, The Netherlands Minister for the Environment, said.

Poor quality used vehicles also lead to more road accidents. According to the report, many of the countries with “very weak” or “weak” used vehicle regulations, including Malawi, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, and Burundi, also have very high road traffic death rates. Countries that have introduced used vehicle regulations see safer fleets and fewer accidents.

The UN is part of a new initiative supporting the introduction of minimum used vehicle standards. The initiative’s first focus will be countries on the African continent. A number of countries there have already put in place minimum quality standards with many more showing interest in joining the initiative.

It’s not just a health concern: air pollution is costing European citizens $190 billion per year

Air pollution is a threat to both public health and economic progress, a new report showed, costing the inhabitants of European cities $190 billion per year. The study looked at air quality, health, and transport data from over 400 cities, finding air pollution costs the average citizen $1.400 per year.

Credit Flickr World Bank

The European Public Health Alliance (EPHA), a group of environmental and social organizations, quantified the monetary “social cost” of premature death, medical treatment, and lost working days. These and others are linked to three air pollutants, particulate matter (PM), ozone (O₃), and nitrogen dioxide (NO₂).

London had the highest social cost from pollution in absolute terms, totaling $13.3 billion in lost welfare. Bucharest (with $7.4 billion lost) and Berlin (with $6.1 billion euros lost) came second and third, respectively. All cities with a population of over 1 million feature in the top 25 cities with the highest social costs due to air pollution.

Air pollution is the number one cause of premature deaths from environmental factors in Europe, according to the European Environment Agency (EEA). The problem is greatest in cities, where two-thirds of Europeans live. Two-thirds of cities break clean air standards set by the World Health Organization (WHO).

EPHA Acting Secretary-General Sascha Marschang said: “Our study reveals the magnitude of the damage toxic air is causing to people’s health and the huge health inequalities that exist between and within countries in Europe. To a large extent, the situation can be influenced by transport policies and cities can reduce costs by switching to zero-emission urban mobility.”

The study is the largest of its kind, in terms of the number of cities and pollutants studied. The researchers took the latest complete data from Eurostat and official monitoring stations from 2018, to calculate the harms caused and the costs related to resulting illnesses. They excluded indoor air pollution, a significant cause of illness. The data encompassed 432 cities in all EU countries plus the UK, Norway, and Switzerland. Added together, air pollution costs for city residents amount to $190 billion per year or $455 million per city on average. When grouped by the city rather than per capita cost, those living in big cities tend to face the highest pollution costs.

PM incurs the vast majority of costs, accounting for 82.5% on average. It’s followed by NO₂ with 15% and O₃ with 2.5%. These proportions vary considerably between cities. The Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) region has the highest rate of air pollution deaths while Southern Europe has the highest rate of chronic illnesses.

“Our findings provide additional evidence that reducing air pollution in European cities should be among the top priorities in any attempt to improve the welfare of city populations in Europe,” the researchers wrote in the report. “The present COVID-19 pandemic has only underscored this.”

Unbreathable air could be driving plastic pollution — and your stomach is to blame

A polluted air outside makes office workers more likely to order food delivery instead of going out for lunch, which increasing plastic waste from food packaging, a new study showed.

Since this issue is unlikely to be solved anytime soon, the researchers call for more environmentally friendly packaging and improved waste management to tackle this growing issue.

Credit Lous Allen Flickr.

The pandemic has shifted much of our restaurant eating to food takeaway and delivery. But even before the pandemic, a growing number of people were using these services.

Professor Alberto Salvo and his team focused their study on China, which is one of the world’s largest users of online food delivery platforms, with 350 million registered users. An estimated 65 million meal containers are discarded each day across China, with office workers contributing over one-half of demand.

“Plastic waste is a growing global environmental concern. While we see more research on the impact plastic pollution is having on the natural environment, there has been less work trying to understand the human behavior that drives plastic pollution. This is where our study seeks to contribute,” said Salvo.

The researchers surveyed the lunch choices of 251 office workers in three often smog-filled Chinese cities, Beijing, Shenyang, and Shijiazhuang, between January and June 2018. They also accessed the 2016 Beijing order book of an online food delivery platform to complement the survey.

Data from both sources were then compared with PM2.5 measurements (fine particles less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter) during lunchtime periods. The team found that PM2.5 levels during these periods were often well above the acceptable standard for the US, estimated at 35 μg/m³.

Correcting for weather and seasonal influences, the researchers found that a 100 μg/m³ increase in PM2.5 raised food delivery consumption by 7.2%. Such a shift increased office workers’ propensity to order delivery by a factor of six to 43%, according to the study’s findings. .

Co-author Prof Chu said: “Faced with smog or haze outside, a typical office worker at lunchtime can avoid exposure only by ordering food to be delivered to his or her doorstep. A broader base of consumers has more alternatives to avoiding the outdoor environment on a polluted day, for example, by using a home kitchen when at home.”

The researchers received over 3,000 photos of meals from office workers. This helped to quantify how much disposable plastic varies across different lunch choices, specifically meals eaten at the restaurant versus those delivered to the office. A 100 μg/m³ PM2.5 increase raised a meal’s disposable plastic use by 10 grams on average, they found.

The photographs published as part of the study showed that the average delivered meal used 2.8 single-use plastic items and an estimated 54 grams of plastic. Meanwhile, the average dine-in meal used an estimated 6.6 grams of plastic, such as in chopstick sleeves or bottles.

Based on the delivery app, the researchers estimated that on a given day, if all of China were exposed to a 100 μg/m³ PM2.5 increase in dose as is routinely observed in Beijing, 2.5 million more meals would be delivered, requiring an additional 2.5 million plastic bags and 2.5 million plastic containers.

Co-author Prof Liu said: “Our findings probably apply to other typically polluted developing-nation cities, such as in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and Vietnam. Waste management practices vary widely, with the wind blowing plastic debris away from uncovered landfills or plastic being discarded into rivers and from there into the ocean.”

The study was published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

The lockdown saved thousands of lives by reducing air pollution

The lockdown measures implemented in Europe and China at the start of the pandemic improved air quality and averted thousands of deaths in regions with severe air pollution, according to a new study. The authors called for control policies to achieve larger air quality improvements.

Credit CCO BAY

A team of scientists at the University of Notre Dame found that particulate matter (PM 2.5) concentrations in China and parts of Europe dropped by 29.7% and 17.1% respectively during the lockdown. They measured air quality between February and March in China and February and May in Europe, when stay-at-home orders were in place.

Particulate matter, small airborne particles, comes from combustion-related sources such as industrial emissions, transportation, wildfires, and chemical reactions of pollutants in the atmosphere. This has turned air pollution into the leading environmental cause of death, according to the World Health Organization.

“We look on these lockdowns as the first global experiment of forced low-emission scenarios,” said Paola Crippa, co-author of the study, in a statement. “This unique, real-world experiment shows us that strong improvements in severely polluted areas are achievable even in the short term, if strong measures are implemented.”

Crippa and her team measured particulate matter concentrations at more than 2,500 sites in Europe and China between 2016 and 2020. They integrated these into computer simulations to see how the lockdown impacted air quality and its effects.

The researchers estimated rates of premature death against four different economic recovery scenarios. One of them assumed a fast resumption of normal activity, and another one a gradual come-back. The other two contemplated a second outbreak between October and December and a permanent lockdown for the rest of the year.

“The most surprising part of this work is related to the impact on human health of the air quality improvements,” Crippa said. “It was somewhat unexpected to see that the number of averted fatalities in the long term due to air quality improvements is similar to the COVID-19 related fatalities, at least in China.”

The study found that from February to March an estimated 24,200 premature deaths associated with particulate matter were averted throughout China compared to 3,309 reported COVID-19 fatalities. Improvements in air quality were widespread across China because of extended lockdown measures.

The situation in Europe was quite different. While COVID-19 related deaths were higher compared to China, an estimated 2,190 deaths were still avoided during the lockdown period when compared to averages between 2016 and 2019. The averted fatalities figures become much larger in Europe and China when considering long-term effects.

The researchers believe the study is an example of the need for ad hoc control policies to be developed to achieve effective air quality improvements. This could include subsidies to electric vehicles, prioritizing public transport in heavily trafficked cities, and the adoption of more stringent emission limitations for industries.

“Continuous air pollution mitigation strategies might help in reducing mortality not only during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic but also in future pandemics related to respiratory diseases, as people exposed to poor air quality are more likely to have pre-existing respiratory or pulmonary conditions that could make them more vulnerable to infectious diseases and ultimately increase the death rate,” the researchers wrote.

The study was published in the journal The Lancet.