Tag Archives: air quality

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.

Genetically modified houseplant with rabbit gene removes benzene and chloroform from the air

Credit: Environmental Science & Technology.

We all want to breathe cleaner air. While most urban environments are littered with all sorts of industrial and vehicle pollutants, there are ways to purify the air inside homes. Some air condition their living or office space using expensive filters, for instance. Yet, one of the best ways to keep the air inside your home fresh is to grow certain plants that have air purifying properties. Now, scientists at the University of Washington have genetically modified a common houseplant to remove chloroform and benzene from the atmosphere by introducing a rabbit gene.

Faster air cleanup… with the help of some rabbit genes

All mammals, including humans, express a protein called cytochrome P450 2E1, or 2E1 for short. Once they enter the body, this protein turns benzene into a chemical called phenol and chloroform into carbon dioxide and chloride ions. But there’s a catch — this process occurs in the liver and is only activated when we drink alcohol.

“We decided we should have this reaction occur outside of the body in a plant, an example of the ‘green liver’ concept,” said Dr. Stuart Strand, Ph.D., a research professor in the UW’s civil and environmental engineering department. “And 2E1 can be beneficial for the plant, too. Plants use carbon dioxide and chloride ions to make their food, and they use phenol to help make components of their cell walls.”

Benzene and chloroform can enter our homes from many sources, including cooking, showering, furniture, storing gasoline in a garage, and smoking. Some indoor house plants readily absorb such chemicals, but rather inefficiently. It would take more than 20 potted plants to remove formaldehyde from a typical room, for instance. In order to supercharge air filtering, Strand and colleagues introduced a gene called CYP2E1, which they sourced from rabbits, to a common houseplant, pothos ivy (Epipremnum aureum). This gene is responsible for encoding 2E1, an enzyme that breaks down a wide range of volatile organic compounds found in the home.

In an experiment, the researchers injected benzene and chloroform gas into closed vials that contained the modified plants. Three days later, the concentration of these gases inside the vials dropped dramatically. Eight days later, the chloroform was barely detectable. The concentration of benzene also decreased in the modified plant vials, but more slowly — by day eight, the benzene concentration had dropped by about 75%. For comparison, vials that contained unmodified ivy or no plants at all did not register any changes in concentration.

A common houseplant—pothos ivy— was genetically modified to remove chloroform and benzene from the air around it. Credit: Mark Stone/University of Washington.

A common houseplant—pothos ivy— was genetically modified to remove chloroform and benzene from the air around it. Credit: Mark Stone/University of Washington.

The research team estimates that biofilters made of such genetically modified plants could deliver clean air compared to commercial particulate filters. One could argue that the modified plants are actually a lot better since they can catch hazardous compounds that are too small to be trapped in commercial filters.

There is an important caveat to the study’s findings. The researchers note that the ivy was efficient at filtering toxins only when a fan blew air through the leaves. Some potted plants containing the ivy would also remove harmful chemicals but at a far slower rate if there wasn’t any airflow.

The findings appeared in the Environmental Science & Technology journal.

European Union sues six of its countries over air pollution

Last week, the European Commission sent six countries to Europe’s highest court over air pollution. Germany, France, and the U.K. are accused of breaching EU standards for nitrogen dioxide limits. Meanwhile, Italy, Hungary, and Romania will face the court over breaching particulate matter standards.

London and pollution are two old friends. Image credits: David Holt.

Air pollution kills more than 400,000 people in the EU each year. Attempting to limit that damage, the EU imposes strict air quality standards. The legislation is well established for years, and the countries have received several warnings — yet they failed to take significant action to remediate the problem. The UK, at least, has been taken to court over its air quality before — more than once.

If the countries don’t address the problem, they are facing up to a few billions of euros in fines.

Commissioner for Environment, Karmenu Vella said:

“The decision to refer Member States to the Court of Justice of the EU has been taken on behalf of Europeans. We have said that this Commission is one that protects. Our decision follows through on that claim. The Member States referred to the Court today have received sufficient ‘last chances’ over the last decade to improve the situation. It is my conviction that today’s decision will lead to improvements for citizens on a much quicker timescale. But legal action alone will not solve the problem. That is why we are outlining the practical help that the Commission can provide to the national authorities’ efforts to promote cleaner air for European cities and towns.”

The unprecedented measure shows that the EU takes its environmental targets seriously, and suing six countries, including the continent’s three largest economies, shows just how far they are willing to go for those targets. Not all is good in Europe, but the fact that the Union’s bureaucratic instruments are used to enforce environmental objectives is encouraging.

In the European Union, air quality has generally improved over the past decades, but things are still very problematic, and in some regards, the EU still lags behind the US. However, both areas would still benefit from more ambitious interventions, a 2015 study concluded.

“Although the U.S. and EU have achieved significant improvements in air quality, the area of air quality management in both regions still requires a more integrated and ambitious approach,” the study read.

Since 2015, however, the EU has tightened regulations, whereas under the current administration, the US Environmental Protection Agency is slowly strangling itself. It remains to be seen if current trends will continue — the recently-announced trials may play a pivotal role in future developments.

Commissioner for the Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs Elżbieta Bieńkowska added:

“We will only succeed in fighting urban air pollution if the car sector plays its part. Zero emissions cars are the future. Meanwhile, complying with emissions legislation is a must. Manufacturers that keep disregarding the law have to bear the consequences of their wrongdoing.”

California freeway.

Eighteen U.S states are taking the EPA to court over weakening emission regulations

A coalition of 18 U.S states is suing the current administration over “arbitrary and capricious” moves to weaken air quality regulations.

California freeway.

California freeway.
Image via Wikimedia.

Eighteen states will take representatives of the Trump administration to court. In a move championed by the golden state of California, they will fight against the administration’s revisions of Obama-era car greenhouse gas emission rules — one of his most significant measures against climate change.

“Arbitrary and capricious”

New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Washington, Oregon, the District of Columbia, and California are suing the EPA and its Administrator Scott Pruitt.

Together, the states hold roughly 43% of the U.S.’s cars and are understandably angry at the EPA’s moves to weaken current car emission regulation. They aim to “set aside and hold unlawful” the newer (and weaker, compared to those adopted in 2012) fuel economy standards, which are slated to take effect in 2022.

According to The New York Times, the Trump administration said the standards were too stringent and began legal procedures to revise them. The EPA hasn’t offered any new standards, instead choosing to draft regulation that weakens existing ones post-2020. In other words, we’re not talking about a different take or a paradigm shift here — just a simple, old-fashioned cut.

The NYT explains that after executives from General Motors, Ford, and Fiat Chrysler visited the White House to request more lenient emissions rules, Trump’s administration began to try and roll back the standards. The Agency claims that the standards are “based on outdated information” and that new data suggests “the current standards may be too stringent.” For context, these standards aimed to raise efficiency requirements to about 50 miles per gallon by 2025.

The states, however, contend that the EPA acted “arbitrarily and capriciously” in changing these rules, in direct opposition to their citizens’ best interests. Furthermore, they hold that the EPA under Pruitt violated the Clean Air Act and didn’t follow its own regulations.

The lawsuit comes just days after learning that the Department of Transportation is planning to propose freezing fuel economy standards at model year 2020 levels, Politico adds.

“The federal standard the states are suing to protect is estimated to reduce carbon pollution equivalent to 134 coal power plants burning for a year, and save drivers $1,650 per vehicle,” the states said.

Which, you have to admit, sounds pretty sweet. There’s something for everybody, no matter if you care about the environment or your bottom line. No matter how this plays out, we’re likely to look at a protracted legal battle as both sides seem intent to see it through to the bitter end.

“My message to the EPA and Administrator Pruitt is simple: Do your job. Regulate carbon pollution from vehicles,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said at a press conference on Tuesday. “We are not looking to pick a fight with the Trump administration, but we are ready for one.”

“This is about health, it’s about life and death,” adds California Gov. Jerry Brown. “I’m going to fight it with everything I can.”

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Indoor plants can be natural, sustainable air-cleaning systems

We think of plants mostly as things we use to decorate our homes, but a new study shows that they can play a very important role in cleaning out the air we breathe.

A semi-autonomous, sustainable, eco-friendly air cleaning system. Or as we usually call it — a plant.

People in industrialized countries spend more than 80% of their time indoors — that’s over 19 of the 24 hours in a day in air-tight buildings, without much exposure to the outside air. Buildings also tend to accumulate particulate matter and potentially toxic gases, and our indoor furniture, carpets, paints, and office equipment can be sources of these unwanted compounds. Many buildings spend a lot of energy and money for ventilation and air purification, but that service could also be provided for free — by plants.

Frederico Brilli, a plant physiologist at the National Research Council of Italy integrated a system which featured indoor plants and sensor-controlled air cleaning and monitoring technologies to see just how much of an effect plants really have.

We know surprisingly little about the effect indoor plants have on air quality. NASA carried out i pioneering work in the 1980s, but they relied on a simple experimental approach. You’d expect that with the advent of modern sensors and smart houses we’d have a trove of data, but we really don’t. We also care surprisingly little — plants are almost exclusively picked either for their aesthetic qualities, or for their ability to survive with very little maintenance. In other words, we want nice plants we don’t have to take care of.

“For most of us plants are just a decorative element, something aesthetic, but they are also something else,” says Brilli.

[Also Read: 7 Potted Plants that Will Remove Indoor Air Pollution from Your Home, Proven by Science]

Succulents, or water-retaining plants, such as this jelly bean plant (Sedum rubrotinctum), are often grown as houseplants. Image credits: JJ Harrison.

Brilli and his colleagues found that plants improve air quality through a variety of methods: they absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen through photosynthesis, they absorb pollutants and store them in the soil-root system, and they also increase humidity in the room by transpiring water vapor through their pores. They also interact with microbiomes in ways that we don’t really understand — they favor the development of some microbial communities while discouraging others.

Previous studies have suggested that most plants have positive effects on microbiomes — they favor the development of microbial communities that are harmless or even helpful to humans (microbial communities can also remove pollutants). But we don’t really know how different plants behave. For instance, some plants can trigger allergies or lung inflammation. So while Brilli’s study offers some much-neededd information about the plants’ effect on air quality, much more research is needed if we want to thoroughly understand the big picture. According to Brilli, future studies could show how to “optimize the use of plants indoors, in terms of how many plants per square meter we need to reduce air pollution to a certain level.”

[Also Read: Why you should use potted plants to clean air pollutants from your home]

Of course, plants won’t replace ventilation or indoor heating or cooling, but they can complement these systems, making then more efficient and sustainable in the long run. A simple thing like a potted plant could have a great effect on our overall health, and we might not even realize it.

“The ability of plants to phytoremediate indoor air pollutants has been overlooked for too long,” the study concludes.

The study “Plants for Sustainable Improvement of Indoor Air Quality” by Brilli et al. has been published in the journal Trends in Plant Science.

Dusty air.

Researchers identify main factors of home indoor air pollution: marijuana surprisingly plays a big role

A new study led by San Diego State University researchers has identified the most important factors that go into home indoor air pollution. Tobacco and marijuana smoking turned out to be some of the biggest offender — marking the first time the drug was found to play such a role.

Dusty air.

The researcher’s main goal was to understand what behaviors lead to an increase in airborne particle densities in homes, leading to unhealthy or even hazardous environments for kids. So the team, led by SDSU environmental health scientist and lead author Neil Klepeis, worked with almost 300 families living in San Diego which had at least one child aged 14 or younger and one or more smokers.

Each home had a pair of air particle monitors installed — one as close to the area where the families reported smoking as possible while still being indoors, and one in the child’s bedroom. These sensors could pick up particles between 0.5 and 0.25 micrometers in size, the diameter that includes dust, spores, combustion byproducts as well as auto exhaust. These particles can have a nasty effect on health since they’re small enough to reach deep into the lungs and can cause a wide range of lung and cardiovascular issues.

Out of the total, 44 (22.8%) of families reported at least one household member smoking at least one cigarette indoors in the 7-days prior to the interview. Homes without indoor cigarette smoking reported indoor smoking of cigars (1.3%), hookah (0.8%), electronic cigarettes (14.1%), marijuana (10.1%), and other drugs (0.7%). Nearly all families reported opening a window (95.3%) or opening a door (96.9%) for ventilation purposes. Most homes (60.1%) reported using an exhaust fan in their kitchen and 8.3% of homes used an air purifier. No significant differences in ventilation activities were seen between homes with indoor and outdoor smoking, except the use of central air conditioning which was higher among homes without indoor cigarette smoking (25.5% vs. 6.8%).

On average, the homes had 2.6 bedrooms, 1.6 bathrooms and were mostly one story.  The team notes that “with the exception of the number of doors leading outside, none of the home characteristics of families with and without self-reported indoor cigarette smoking differed significantly.”

Up in smoke


The monitors worked continuously for three months, feeding air quality data to the researchers.The team also carried out two sessions of interviews with each family to ask about their schedule to get an idea of what activities were likely to occur in the house at various times, especially cooking, cleaning, and smoking, as these tend to generate said particles.

Families that reported smoking cigarettes indoors had an average particle level almost double that of non-indoor-smoking families. These particles included nicotine and combustion byproducts, both linked to health issues especially for children. Surprisingly enough, marijuana smoking contributed to in-home air pollution about as much as tobacco smoking. Burning candles or incense, frying food in oil, and spraying cleaning products also led to an increase in the number of fine particles.

“The aim of our research is, ultimately, to find effective ways to promote smoke-free homes and also to find good strategies, in general, for reducing exposure to household pollution,” Klepeis said in a press release. “The findings from our work will allow for better education and feedback to families.”

The team plans to expand on the marijuana findings to see whether the rise in indoor pollution resulting from its use translates into increased exposure to combustion byproducts and cannabinoids in nonsmokers living in the house.

In the meantime, if you’re worried about the quality of air in your home or simply want to tidy it up a bit, here’s a handy guide by NASA to decide what plants to get. They also look pretty, and green, and will make you feel better. Win-win-win!

The full paper “Fine particles in homes of predominantly low-income families with children and smokers: Key physical and behavioral determinants to inform indoor-air-quality interventions” has been published in the journal PLOS One.

Paris, Madrid, Athens, Mexico City to ban all diesels by 2025, mayors announce

Four major cities are taking up the fight on air pollution by clamping down on diesel engines. The ban should come into full effect by the middle of the next decade.

Image from the Public Domain.

Diesel engines will be banned from Paris, Mexico City, Madrid, and Athens sometime in the next ten years to promote cleaner transport such as alternative vehicle use or old-fashioned walking and cycling. The announcement was made at the C40 conference in Mexico.

Diesels were originally promoted by governments as test runs showed they released lower levels of CO2 and other harmful emissions. But, this type of engine has (rightfully) come under a lot of flak recently, particularly in urban areas, after it became apparent that manufacturers faked the results (you can read about it here). They have been linked to nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter (PM) emissions, which can build up in huge quantities in cities.

Fine PM, such as PM2.5, can pass into the bloodstream and contribute to heart or lung conditions (both acute and chronic), even death. At ground levels, NOx emissions can lead to ozone build-ups, causing breathing difficulties even for those without a history of respiratory problems. The WHO estimates that around three million people each year die due to exposure to outdoor air pollution.

In some cases, such as London, citizen groups have taken matters into their own hands. Environmental groups have championed their case and appealed to courts for clean air standards and regulations. Mayor Sadiq Khan has proposed an expansion of the planned Ultra-Low Emissions Zone, and campaigners are pushing for him to phase out all diesels from London by 2025.

“In the UK, London’s mayor is considering bolder action than his predecessor, proposing an expansion to the planned Ultra-Low Emission Zone. This is welcome but we want him to go further and faster,” said ClientEarth lawyer Alan Andrews.
“And it’s not just London that has this problem, we need a national network of clean air zones so that the problem is not simply pushed elsewhere.”

Keen on preventing such troubles at-home, mayors from four other cities with long-standing air pollution problems have pledged to use their executive power to limit the use of diesel engines. The four mayors declared that they would ban all diesel vehicles by 2025 and “commit to doing everything in their power to incentivize the use of electric, hydrogen and hybrid vehicles”.

“It is no secret that in Mexico City, we grapple with the twin problems of air pollution and traffic,” said the city’s mayor, Miguel Ángel Mancera.

“By expanding alternative transportation options like our Bus Rapid Transport and subway systems, while also investing in cycling infrastructure, we are working to ease congestion in our roadways and our lungs.”

Paris has already laid down some groundwork on the issue. Cars registered before 1997 are already banned from entering the city. The Champs-Élysées is closed to traffic once every month, and a 3-km long stretch on the Seine — once a two-lane motorway — has been recently pedestrianized. The city’s mayor, Anne Hidalgo, said that they will continue to “progressively ban the most polluting vehicles from the roads” of Paris.

“Our ambition is clear and we have started to roll it out: we want to ban diesel from our city, following the model of Tokyo, which has already done the same.”

Manuel Carmena, Madrid’s mayor, has spoken in support of cleaning city air saying it’s intimately tied with our efforts of tackling climate change. All in all, these four mayors seem to be set on cleaning the air, and they have their sights set on diesels.

Which is a big deal, because if major cities go down this road, they will set a powerful precedent for others to follow suit. Carmakers, too, are likely to understand this and push for the development of hybrid and electric cars even more than before. Hopefully, this time somebody will double-check their results before the WHO has to issue another grisly statistic.

Environmental refugees? Wealthy Chinese depart mainland in search for clean air

The low quality of the Chinese air is more than simply a nuisance – China has by far the worst air quality out of all the industrialized countries, and it’s estimated that 16 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in China. Needless to say this significantly raises mortality and causes a myriad of health issues – but are the people who leave their homes in search for better air truly environmental refugees?

Phoenix Island is an artificial archipelago forming an island resort currently under construction in Sanya, Hainan Province, China.

So far, we’ve seen that America’s first environmental refugees were forced to flee their Alaskan village, due to rising water levels, but apparently, that term needs to be broadened more and more. More and more wealthy Chinese are leaving heavily polluted urban centers, flocking remote, coastal environments.

“China’s environmental refugees are two-pronged,” reported New Tang Dynasty, a news service based in New York City and founded by Chinese Americans. “One being those moving overseas to find clean air, and the other is those remaining in China, who flee pollution. The wealthy class choose America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand or small European countries as destinations. Those remaining in China move to less populated, small and medium sized cities. This includes Dali in Yunnan, Sanya in Hainan, Weihai in Shandong, and Zhuhai in Guangdong.”

For example, Zoe Zhang, a Shanghai housewife, one example of this trend, wants to move Sanya in Hainan, a tropical island in the South China Sea that reported just one “slightly polluted” day last year compared to 189 days of polluted or heavily polluted air last year in Beijing.

“Air quality has never been so bad in Shanghai,” Zhang told Bloomberg News. “I simply want to have a place in Sanya for my baby and parents to fly down and stay during those heavily polluted days.”

Of course, this has extremely high financial costs, and only a fortunate minority can afford this. So can they really be called environmental refugees? According to Wikipedia, the term ‘environmental refugee‘ or ‘environmental migrant’ refers to people who are forced to migrate from or flee their home region due to sudden or long-term changes to their local environment which compromise their well being or secure livelihood. If you take it like this, virtually all the people in Shanghai and Beijing (and many other Chinese cities) fall in that category; but of course, you can’t relocate all the people, and while their health is significantly threatened, they are not ‘forced’ to leave – like the people in the Alaskan village were, for example.

Personally, I think we need a new term; as environmental conditions change more and more across the world, and as more and more people have their lifestyles (and even lives) threatened, we need differentiate between different types and magnitudes of threat. We need to differentiate between people who simply can’t continue living in their homes anymore, and people whose long term health is threatened. I assume we’ll be hearing this type of discussion more in the near future.

Research finds direct correlation between heart attacks and ozone and air pollution

Based on a massive set of data collected from Houston by Rice University researchers, there is a direct correlation between out-of-hospital heart attacks and levels of air pollution and ozone.

houston smog

Rice statisticians Katherine Ensor and Loren Raun announced their findings today at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference in Boston – where all the cool things are happening these days.

The study seems quite relevant in that it analyzed a period of 8 years, studying over 11.000 cardiac arrest cases logged by Houston Emergency Medical Services (EMS). They found that a daily average increase in particulate matter of 6 micrograms per day over two days raised the risk of out of hospital cardiac arrest (OHCA) by 4.6 percent. Researchers also analyzed a number of other factors, including itrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide levels, and found no connection between them and OHCA cases. This is not really new information, just a numerical, statistical validation of what we already knew.

Co-author David Persse, Houston Fire Department EMS physician director and a public-health authority for the city explains:

“But this mathematically and scientifically validates what we know,” he said.

The good thing is that Houston is already starting to take measures in the right direction.

“The city has targeted educational resources to at-risk communities, where they’re now doing intensive bystander CPR training,” Raun said.

Early intervention is absolutely critical. Previous research had already shown that every minute when the victim is left unattended drops survival chances by 10 percent! The thing is, you can try to mitigate and intervene as early as possible – these are not substitutes for air quality! Apparently, this is not something we can, as a society, do at the moment. Emergency intervention is the best to hope for.

“The bottom-line goal is to save lives,” Ensor said. “We’d like to contribute to a refined warning system for at-risk individuals. Blanket warnings about air quality may not be good enough. At the same time, we want to enhance our understanding of the health cost of pollution – and celebrate its continuing reduction.”

Published research: Katherine B. Ensor, Loren H. Raun, David Persse, “A Case-Crossover Analysis of Out-of-Hospital Cardiac Arrest and Air Pollution,” 2013, doi: 10.1161/​CIRCULATIONAHA.113.000027