Tag Archives: air


California to launch its “own damn satellite” to monitor air pollution, climate change

As Trump’s administration works to drain funding away from NASA’s climate change monitoring efforts, the state of California steps up to the plate.


Image via Maxpixel / Public Domain.

Last Friday at the Global Climate Action Summit, California’s Governor Jerry Brown announced that the state will launch its own air-quality-tracking satellite. No information as to when the launch will take place or how much the initiative will cost has so far been released to the public.

Space race

NASA runs its own climate change program known as the Carbon Monitoring System (CMS). It revolves around a swarm of satellites and high-altitude aircraft that keep tabs of carbon emissions around the world. All of which cost a lot of money to operate and maintain.

This doesn’t seem to sit particularly well with the White House — neither do similar climate change initiatives. During the latest round of budget cut discussions at the White House, the CMS was put into discussion as a possible target. So far, the appropriations committee left the program’s funding intact. The event, however, has left many scientists worried that CMS’ days are numbered — especially since the current administration has already “axed” NASA funding for several climate programs.

The state of California in general and its Governor in particular have elbowed their way to the forefront of climate initiatives and have a long history of defying President Trump on environmental issues. After pledging to go full carbon neutral by 2045, Brown now wants to secure access to long-term data monitoring to support its efforts.

“We’re under attack by a lot of people, including Donald Trump, but the climate threat still keeps growing,” Brown said on Friday, in the closing remarks of the San Francisco conference.

“So we’re going to launch our own satellite, our own damn satellite, to figure out where the pollution is, and how we’re going to end it, with great precision.”

The satellite will be designed to pinpoint sources of air pollutants, including “super pollutants” that have more powerful heat-trapping effects, according to a statement from Brown’s office.

California will work with San Francisco-based Planet Labs (also known as ‘Planet’) to design, build, and launch the satellite. The company — funded by former NASA members and backed by companies like Google and DCVC — will collaborate with California’s Air Resources Board to build the device and track carbon emissions throughout the state and the world. So far, Planet Labs maintains a fleet of 150 satellites which it uses to take photographs of the planet that are later transferred to various governments, private companies, journalists, agriculture businesses, or hedge funds.

Brown hopes the program will help us maintain high-quality climate monitoring, despite the efforts from the Trump administration. Data from the satellite would be made available to the public through a partnership with the Environmental Defense Fund.

Air pollution.

Air pollution seems to promote diabetes — even at officially ‘safe’ pollution levels

Air pollution may increase the risk of diabetes — even at levels currently deemed safe.

Air pollution.

Image credits Chris LeBoutillier.

A new study published by researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and the Veterans Affairs (VA) St. Louis Health Care System suggests that heavily polluted countries such as India or the U.S. could see major health benefits — should they adopt tighter air pollution regulations.

A veterany affair

After sifting through all the research related to diabetes and outdoor air pollution, the team devised a model to evaluate diabetes risk across various pollution levels. They first looked at the levels of particulate matter — microscopic bits of dust, dirt, smoke, soot, and fluids that float around in the atmosphere — as recorded by the EPA’s land-based air monitoring systems and NASA satellites. They focused their research on particulate matter as these materials can pass into the bloodstream from the lungs, contributing to major health conditions such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, or kidney disease.

The team also analyzed data from 1.7 million U.S. veterans (who were followed for a median of 8.5 years). None of the veterans had a history of diabetes. Finally, they analyzed data from the Global Burden of Disease study — conducted annually with contributions from researchers worldwide —  to estimate annual cases of diabetes and healthy years of life lost due to pollution.

All this data was fed through statistical models meant to test whether any link can be observed between air pollution levels and diabetes incidence. The validity of the link was tested through the introduction of two other variables: ambient sodium concentrations, which have no link to diabetes, and lower limb fractures, which have no link to outdoor air pollution. The addition of these datasets helped the team spot any suspicious associations between the pollution and diabetes datasets.

Diabetes is one of the fastest growing diseases worldwide. An unhealthy diet, a sedentary lifestyle, and obesity are considered the main drivers behind the disease — and, according to more recent research, white paint. The findings today, however, suggest that air pollution may also shoulder a large part of the blame:

“Our research shows a significant link between air pollution and diabetes globally,” said Ziyad Al-Aly, MD, study senior author. “We found an increased risk, even at low levels of air pollution currently considered safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the World Health Organization (WHO).”

“This is important because many industry lobbying groups argue that current levels are too stringent and should be relaxed. Evidence shows that current levels are still not sufficiently safe and need to be tightened.”

The team estimates that air pollution contributed to 3.2 million new cases of diabetes throughout the world in 2016 — about 14% of all cases that year. Pollution-linked diabetes led to the loss of some 8.2 million years of healthy life in the same year, which again corresponds to roughly 14% of all healthy life lost to diabetes overall. In the United States, the study attributed 150,000 new cases of diabetes per year to air pollution and 350,000 years of healthy life lost annually.

The findings suggest that reducing air pollution may also help curb cases of diabetes in heavily polluted countries or areas.

Among the sample of veterans exposed to pollution levels between 5 to 10 micrograms per cubic meter of air, 21% developed diabetes. At exposures of between 11.9 to 13.6 micrograms per cubic meter of air, roughly 24% developed diabetes. In the United States, the EPA-set maximum safe pollution threshold sits at 12 micrograms per cubic meter of air. Al-Aly’s team, however, says that their results show pollution levels as low as 2.4 micrograms per cubic meter of air lead to a noticeably increased risk of developing diabetes.

People in lower-income countries such as India are also at a higher overall risk of pollution-related diabetes. This may come down to these countries lacking resources to invest in environmental mitigation systems or policy. Countries whose citizens are at higher risk of pollution-related diabetes include Afghanistan, Papua New Guinea, and Guyana. Countries such as France, Finland, and Iceland experience a lower risk, while the U.S. sees a moderate risk of pollution-related diabetes.

The paper ” The 2016 Global and National Burden of Diabetes Mellitus Attributable to Fine Particulate Matter Air Pollution” has been published in the journal The Lancet Planetary Health.

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.

Matrix air breathing.

Roughly 95% of people live in areas with ‘unsafe’ levels of air pollution

A new study published by the Health Effects Institute might just make you hold your breath — according to the findings, almost 95% of the world’s population are breathing air that’s deemed unhealthy by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Matrix air breathing.

According to the State of Global Air/2018 report, almost 95% of people in the world live in areas with higher levels of fine particulate matter than deemed safe by the WHO’s guidelines.

The Institute used satellites and ground-level monitoring to obtain raw data for their study. They report that “an estimated 95 percent of people live in areas where ambient (outdoor) fine particulate matter concentrations (small dust or soot particles in the air) exceed the World Health Organization’s Air Quality Guideline of 10 µg/m3. Almost 60 percent live in areas where fine particulate matter exceeds even the least stringent WHO interim air quality target of 35 µg/m3.”

The report also takes a look at indoor household air pollution, stating that over 1/3 of the world’s population is exposed to polluted air indoors as well. The prime source is the burning of fossil fuels for heating or cooking.

“For them, fine particulate matter levels in the home can exceed the air quality guidelines by as much as 20 times,” the document reads.

Another worrying find is that the gap between the most and least polluted countries is also increasing: it’s gone from six-fold in 1990 to over 11-fold today, Health Effects Institute vice president Bob O’Keefe told The Guardian. However, he also notes that there’s reason for hope — most notably India’s focus on electrification (which should help replace much of the country’s domestic and industrial need for fossil fuels), and China’s “aggressive” fight against air pollution, such as implementing stronger controls against pollution and making an effort to reduce coal use.

Air pollution plays a central role in all sorts of respiratory diseases and complications, contributing to poor public health and early death. It’s become a huge issue, claiming more lives than wars, AIDS, and traffic accidents combined. Estimates place the number of air-pollution-associated deaths to over six million around the world last year.

The full document is available here.

NASA tells us which plants to buy for cleaner air — in 100% infographic format

A healthy environment at home goes a long way towards improving your well-being. The NASA Clean Air Study identified several species of plants that are effective in scrubbing your home’s air of nasty chemicals.

Image via lovethegarden

Compounds including benzene, formaldehyde, trichloroethylene, xylene, and ammonia float about in the air around you, released by aging adhesives, fire proofing, car exhaust, and the list goes on. These chemicals have been linked to negative health effects — headaches, dizziness, eye irritation, and others.

So how can you scrub these nasties out of your air? Well, a NASA study led by B. C. Wolverton some 27 years ago found that The Florist’s Mum and Peace Lily are the strongest choices for the job. Following the study, the agency also recommends you have at least one plant per 100 square feet (10 square meters). Although the research technically classifies as “old” (and further research has been done on the subject, as we detail here) it still remains one of the most inclusive and accurate works on the issue.

[ALSO SEE] 7 potted plants that will remove air pollution from your home 

The guys over at Lovethegarden.com have luckily framed the findings of the study in a handy inforgraphic format. Ah, the wonders of modern technology.

So enjoy, and next time you’re looking for a potted friend to bring back home, consider consulting this guide.

Image credits lovethegarden

ClientEarth vs UK Gov. verdict announced, officials have to tackle the problem

The UK government’s plan to tackle the country’s air pollution crisis is illegally poor, the supreme court decided. This marks the second time in 18 months when the officials have lost the case on this issue in court.

London viewed from Hackney, April 2015.
Image credits David Holt / Flickr.

A while ago I’ve written about how the UK’s government is being taken to court (again) over their lack of action regarding air pollution throughout the country. The supreme court has finally released its ruling on the case — officials must work towards cutting illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide in dozens of towns and cities in “the shortest possible time.”

ClientEarth, the NGO which took the government to court over the issue, said that the plans currently set in place are, well, flimsy at best. UK’s policy makers have placed too much weight on the issue of cost, they said, ignoring many measures which would have helped improve the country’s air quality. Justice Graham, who ruled on the case, agrees with them. Graham added that ministers knew their plans relied on over-optimistic pollution modeling, which were based on diesel vehicles’ emission levels recorded in lab settings rather than on the road. The numbers have since been proven wrong. If I may quote myself from the previous article (and I believe I can):

[ClientEarth’s supporters point out that ] as the Volkswagen [scandal] recently proved, NO2 and particulate matter emission measurements for modern diesels (on which these models are based) are flat-out lies.

Faced with the second ruling against them in such a short time, the UK’s government took its losses and said they won’t appeal the decision. In court, officials agreed to discuss a new timetable with ClientEarth for realistic pollution modeling, and the steps required to curb pollution down to legal levels. The two parties will re-convene in court in a week, but if they can’t reach an agreement the judge will impose a timetable upon the government.

A time to act

ClientEarth CEO James Thornton said that the time for legal action has passed, and called on Prime Minister Theresa May to action.

“I challenge Theresa May to take immediate action now to deal with illegal levels of pollution and prevent tens of thousands of additional early deaths in the UK. The high court has ruled that more urgent action must be taken. Britain is watching and waiting, prime minister.”

She responded by saying the government will act in accordance with the ruling, offering new proposals.

“We now recognise that Defra [the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] has to look at the judgement made by the courts and we now have to look again at the proposals we will bring forward,” she said.

“Nobody in this house doubts the importance of the issue of air quality. We have taken action, there is more to do and we will do it.”

Bad air in Britain causes some 50,000 early deaths and amounts to £27.5bn (US$33,84bn) in damages every year, the government estimates. Thornton added that the increased action required to solve the issue will likely include implementing larger and tougher clean air zones in more cities than at present, as well as other methods such as scrapping schemes for the most polluting vehicles — diesels in particular.

Documents revealed during the case showed that the Treasury blocked plans to charge diesel cars for entrance into the most polluted towns and cities, as they were concerned about the political backlash of angering motorists. When the environment and transport departments suggested changing the excise duty on vehicles to promote the least-polluting alternatives, the Treasury rejected their proposal.

It also became apparent that the government planned to bring air pollution down to legal levels by 2020 for some cities and 2025 for London. This was done not because it was “as soon as possible”, but because that was when the officials thought they would face fines from the EU. A draft plan called for 16 low emission zones in cities outside London, for which polluting vehicles would’ve been charged to enter, but that number was cut down to just five to lower costs.

“Today’s ruling lays the blame at the door of the government for its complacency in failing to tackle the problem quickly and credibly. In so doing they have let down millions of people the length and breadth of the country,” said Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, who took part in the case against the government.

These proposals will now be revisited. Thornton said that officials should implement a national system of clean air zones by 2018.

“If you put in clean air zones, it works overnight,” he added.

So there it is. The UK government has been told, yet again, to act and protect its people. Hopefully, this time it will.

The UK government is being taken to court over air pollution…again

Beginning today, environmental lawyer group ClientEarth is taking to court against the UK government in the second lawsuit between the two. CE claims that the lawmakers have failed to take serious action to limit air pollution, leading to the deaths of tens of thousands.

Canary Wharf under smog.
Image credits Matt Buck / Wikimedia.

European cities have some of the highest levels of atmospheric nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in the world, mostly due to the high ratio of diesel vehicles in use. Since regular exposure to this gas is very hazardous, in 1999 the EU set legal limits for how much of the stuff can be puffing about in the air we breathe — limits which went into effect in 2010.

Under this law, the city of London got an hourly limit of 200 micrograms NO2/sq meter of air. However, to say that authorities didn’t try to abide by these figures would be an understatement.

“[London was] only permitted to breach those limits 18 times in a year. However, [the city] weezed past the yearly limit just 8 days into the year,” Andrei wrote in January.

“[London polluted] about 40 times more than it should under EU (European Union) regulation.”

Love is in the air, but so is pollution

And it’s not just London. Only five of the country’s 43 air quality zones meet the EU’s limits. Needless to say, this doesn’t sit well with the people who have to breathe it all in.

So in 2011, backed by rising public displeasure on the issue, ClientEarth took the UK government to court over their lack of action on cleaning the air. The case was handled by the European Court of Justice, which ruled in 2014 that national courts can and should ensure their governments take pollution under legal limits “as soon as possible”. From then on, the UK’s Supreme Court handled the suit. In April 2015 it ordered the environmental minister to take “immediate action” by consulting with the public and putting together a plan to clean the air.

Clean air plz we’re dying — Love, Supreme Court, xoxo.

But very little has been done. The plan set out back in December was so vague that CE said they’ll take the UK government to court again, unless their game improves, literally days after it was made public. In effect, the plan estimated compliance to the limits by 2025. To add insult to injury, DEFRA announced it will begin public consultations on the plan involving the creation of five clean air zones — which will not restrict diesel vehicles — just last week, mere days before the second trial.

“It’s taken 18 months for ministers to even begin a consultation,” says James Thornton, head of ClientEarth. “This is a woefully inadequate response to the air pollution crisis.”

So CE is taking to courts against the UK’s government yet again. Supporters say that the government has been deliberately stalling, based on models which predict that emissions would decline as older vehicles get phased out without the ruling body having to do much. They point out that, as Volkswagen recently proved, NO2 and particulate matter emission measurements for modern diesels (on which these models are based) are flat-out lies.

“Defra’s latest figures estimate there are 40,000 early deaths across the UK every year because of air pollution. The government is acting unlawfully by refusing to turn this situation around. It is failing morally and it is failing legally to uphold our right to breathe clean air,” ClientEarth CEO James Thornton said.

More decisive action is needed

“The government must come up with far bolder measures, ready to face this issue head-on,” Thornton added.

“Air quality in this country is nothing short of a public health crisis.”

So what would constitute “bolder measures”? Phasing out diesel is the first obvious step. For starters, I find it mindboggling that the UK is still handing out incentives for diesel cars — so maybe start there? Something along the lines of “scrap your own diesel and get a discount on this brand new *insert literally anything else here*”. Then the implementation of real Clean Air Zones would prevent the most polluting vehicles from entering towns or city centers. Retrofitting of buses and trucks to make them gentler on the environment and lungs, a cleaner public transport network, and so on. There’s a lot to do here.

Clean energy would also help a lot to improve air quality.

But first this case needs to happen, and the UK government needs to understand that pollution is a very real hazard to the public, one which they have a moral — and legal — obligation to solve.

The trial will take place on Oct. 18 and 19, with the ruling to be announced two weeks after the hearing.

A WHO report says 92% of humans breathe dangerously polluted air

A new report by the World Health Organization (WHO) showed some chilling numbers: 92% of the world’s population lives in areas with air pollution above safe levels.

Image via pixabay / JuergenPM.

Air pollution continues to be a crucial global problem. It’s messing with the bees, it’s making you fat then killing you in the bargain — and it’s getting worse, the WHO reports. A report released by the organization today reveals that 92% of humans live in places with air pollution levels above what’s considered healthy. They have previously looked at conditions on a city-by-city level.

The most damaging air pollutant to humans is called PM 2.5, or particulate matter under 2.5 microns in diameter. These particles can get lodged in the lungs’ areolas, causing long-term damage which can lead to asthma and chronic lung diseases. It’s found in soot, smoke, and dust.

While it’s not something you want to breathe at all, it starts to become a major health issue when PM 2.5 levels exceed 35.5 micrograms (µg) per cubic meter of air, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.  The WHO recommends keeping the average level three times lower than that concentration to make sure your lungs remain crispy clean, however.

Sadly, air today has a much higher mean concentration of PM 2.5. Here’s a map the organization put together of average levels of the particles. Green areas correspond to levels that are considered healthy by WHO standards.

Mean levels of PM 2.5.
Image credits World Health Organization.

WHO attributes 3 million deaths each year to air pollution, and most of these deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries.

“The new WHO model shows countries where the air pollution danger spots are, and provides a baseline for monitoring progress in combatting it,” WHO Assistant Director General Dr Flavia Bustreo said in a news release.

So, where do you fall in on the map? I’m an Orange myself. Bummer.

The City of London Corporation bans leasing or purchasing diesel vehicles for its businesses

London’s ruling body, the City of London Corporation, has banned the purchase or hide of diesel vehicles for its businesses, it announced on Friday. The decision was taken in the interest of protecting the public’s health and well-being.

Image credits Joseph Plotz / Wikimedia.

Chris Bell, head of procurement at the City of London Corporation, said that the organization takes improving air quality “extremely seriously,” and has thus decided to clamp down on diesel vehicles. It announced Friday that it will no longer lease or purchase diesel models when vehicles from its extensive fleet of 300 need replacement. While not as drastic as the bans other cities have set, their decision is a step in the right direction.

“This agreement is a major step forward in our drive to protect the millions of London tourists, workers and residents from air pollution,” Bell said in a statement. “We are taking responsibility for the cleanliness of our fleet and encouraging the use of low and zero emission vehicles with our partners.”

The authority said it has reduced the NOx (nitrogen oxide) emissions from its vehicles by over 40 per cent and PM10 (particulate matter 10 micrometers or less in diameter) emissions by over 50 per cent since 2009. The brunt of this reduction was achieved by reducing the number of vehicles it employs and replacing the remaining ones with newer, cleaner models. It also tries to promote the use of hybrid cars and encourage business owners to limit deliveries in the Square Mile.

But not every type of vehicle can be replaced. The Corporation said it will continue to use such vehicles — tractors for example — in their current diesel-chugging models until a clean alternative becomes available.

Simon Birkett, founder of Clear Air in London, welcomes the initiative, saying that London is showing Mayor Sadiq Khan and other members of the government that it’s possible to ban diesel vehicles.

“It’s no longer ‘if’ but ‘where’ and ‘when’ diesel will be banned,” he told BusinessGreen, adding that such bans should be supported by a massive investment in active travel and public transport.

Dutch designer creates device that turns smog into beautiful jewelry

Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde created a new air purifier that he hopes will be the answer to today’s smog-choked urban environments. All the particles that the device captures are then made into jewelry.

The Smog Free Tower.
Image credits wikimedia user Bic

Not so long ago a Canadian company started raking in money selling canned air in China. Everyone was talking about it, and it seemed to me that most conversations ended along the lines of “poor people, I wouldn’t want to live somewhere like that.” While China is an especially powerful example because the smog over Beijing is terrifying to behold, things aren’t much better in the US either. Air quality in most cities is just terrible — the American Lung Association estimates that about 4 in 10 of its people live in counties with “unhealthy” levels of ozone or particle pollution. In most cases, conditions are only getting worse.

Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde decided to do something about it. He created the Smog Free Tower, a 7 meter (23 foot) tall, six-sided air purifier. The tower-like structure is intended to be used in parks and acts like a vacuum, sucking in smog at the top and releasing squeaky-clean air through its vents. The device uses 1,400 watts of energy to clean more than 30,000 cubic meters (roughly 1,060,000 cubic feet) of air per hour. According to Roosegaarde:

“By charging the Smog Free Tower with a small positive current, an electrode will send positive ions into the air. These ions will attach themselves to fine dust particles,” the project’s Kickstarter page states.

“A negatively charged surface – the counter electrode – will then draw the positive ions in, together with the fine dust particles. The fine dust that would normally harm us, is collected together with the ions and stored inside of the tower. This technology manages to capture ultra-fine smog particles which regular filter systems fail to do.”

A simple and very effective method; however, the Tower isn’t just a cleaning device — Roosegaarde designed so that the fine carbon particles trapped by the filters can be pressed into tiny “gem stones,” to be embedded in jewelry. Each of the tiny stones is roughly equivalent to 1,000 cubic meters of purified air.

Image credits Daan Roosegaarde.

Roosegaarde got his funding via Kickstarter and spent three years researching and developing the Tower. The first prototype is currently in Rotterdam, but the designer aims to take his towers to Beijing, Mexico City, Paris, and Los Angeles.

Cleaner air and fancy jewelry from the same device? That’s saving two birds with one tower.

Chronic exposure to air pollution makes rats obese

A laboratory study on rats found that the animals that breathed Beijing’s notoriously polluted air gained weight and showed signs of cardio-respiratory and metabolic dysfunctions after three to eight weeks of exposure.

My grandparents live in a small farm in the countryside, and though they’re probably the oldest people I know, they’re in remarkably good shape. Better than me even. My grandma used to say it’s the clean air out there that keeps them healthy, while my grand-dad thought that “all that junk food makes me fat.”

He’s really nice like that. But, as it turns out, he was right — and my grandma more so.

When your Beijing rat-friend comes visiting.
Image via wikipedia

It’s in the air

A Duke University team placed pregnant rats and their offspring in two chambers, one connected to Beijing’s outdoor air and the other receiving filtered air, free of most impurities and pollution particles. After living in these conditions for 19 days, the lungs and livers of pregnant rats exposed to the polluted air were heavier and showed increased tissue inflammation.

The rats had 50 percent higher LDL cholesterol; 46 percent higher triglycerides; 97 percent higher total cholesterol and showed greater insulin resistances (indicative of the early stages of Type 2 diabetes) than their control-group counterparts.

These numbers support the study’s conclusion that city air pollution leads to metabolic dysfunction and fosters obesity. At the end of the eight weeks study period, female and male rats exposed to the pollution were 10 percent and 18 percent heavier, respectively, than those exposed to clean air.

These results were also seen in the rats’ offspring, which were kept in the same chambers as their mothers.

The team also found that the negative effects of pollution were less severe at thee weeks’ exposure than at eight. This suggests that the continuous inflammatory and metabolic changes (and ultimately, the increases in body weight they lead to) seen in the rats requires long-term exposure.

The data is consistent with other studies on the effects of air pollution that report increased oxidative stress and inflammation in the organs and circulatory system; The findings also echo previous studies linking air pollution with increased insulin resistance and altered fat tissue.

“Since chronic inflammation is recognized as a factor contributing to obesity and since metabolic diseases such as diabetes and obesity are closely related, our findings provide clear evidence that chronic exposure to air pollution increases the risk for developing obesity,” said Junfeng Zhang, a professor of global and environmental health at Duke University and a senior author of the paper.

“If translated and verified in humans, these findings will support the urgent need to reduce air pollution, given the growing burden of obesity in today’s highly polluted world,” Zhang said.

The full paper, titled “Chronic exposure to air pollution particles increases the risk of obesity and metabolic syndrome: findings from a natural experiment in Beijing” has been published online in the journal FASEB and is available here.

Blowfish inflation

Blowfish don’t actually hold their breath when inflated

When under threat, the pufferfish quickly inflates into a spherical shape to help it ward off  and escape predators. Until now, biologist had thought that in this state the pufferfish – also known as the blowfish, toadfish or sea squab – holds its breath all the while, but this assumption has been overturn by the findings made by Australian researchers who not only discovered this isn’t true; on the contrary, the blowfish actually intakes five times as much oxygen than in resting state.

A big ego

Blowfish inflation

A blowfish can inflate to several times its initial body size. Image: National Geographic

Having one of the most iconic predatory escape mechanism in popular culture will invariably attract all sorts of stereotypes or wrong assumptions – with much of the credit having to go to “Finding Nemo”. I’m not sure how this breath holding myth came about, since the blowfish doesn’t inflate with air, although some species use air – but only a bit. To blow itself out of its regular proportions, the puffer quickly ingests huge quantities of water to turn itself into a huge inedible ball several times its normal size. To make themselves even more unappealing, some species also employ spikes.

“We were intrigued by previous studies that suggested the pufferfishes hold their breath while inflated, presumably to keep the ingested water in the stomach,” said Georgia McGee, who did the research as a marine biology undergraduate at James Cook University in Queensland, Australia. “If this was true, we thought it likely that pufferfish inflation would have a limited duration, due to a lack of oxygen getting to vital body organs.”

The team ran tests on eight black-saddled pufferfish (Canthigaster valentini) from Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and put them in separate tanks. When the puffers inflated to about four times their normal size, the quantity of oxygen was measured in the tank. If the fish had hold its breath, then they’d see oxygen levels constant. What happened was the opposite. The puffer actually gobbles up a lot more oxygen than it does in its normal state – about five times more. It makes sense too, since they need to compensate for their lower metabolic rate.

The smallest puffer fish in the world is dwarf puffer fish. The length for this animal is around 22 mm. You can only find the species if you visit River Pamba. It is located in Kerala, India. Image: Flickr

The smallest puffer fish in the world is dwarf puffer fish. The length for this animal is around 22 mm. You can only find the species if you visit River Pamba. It is located in Kerala, India. Image: Flickr

Puffers evolved this ability to swim better and faster when under threat. When not inflated, the puffers are very slow, clumsy and vulnerable to predators. While inflating itself will help it escape once, it won’t work too well the second time. The fish needs 5.6 hours before it can return to typical metabolic levels. A tired prey is an easy catch, but it’s better than nothing. Actually, the puffer is trickier than meets the eye being extremely poisonous. The poison is called tetrodotoxin, a substance that makes them foul tasting and often lethal to fish. To humans, tetrodotoxin is deadly, up to 1,200 times more poisonous than cyanide. There is enough toxin in one pufferfish to kill 30 adult humans, and there is no known antidote. Oddly enough, the puffer is considered a delicacy. Called fugu in Japan, it is extremely expensive and only prepared by trained, licensed chefs who know that one bad cut means almost certain death for a customer.

The findings appeared in Biology Letters


Children protect their faces from Delhi's smog. The WHO said Delhi had an average PM2.5 level of 153 – London's is a tenth of that. Photo: Hindustan Times/Getty

Forget Beijing – Delhi has the world’s filthiest air, by far

Owing to its mass deployment of coal burning plants and the  7.4 million cars that fill its roads, Delhi now proudly stands as the city with the filthiest air in the world, and it’s only getting worse. Many agencies have recently issued health warnings for New Delhi residents, including the most vulnerable such as the elderly and children.

Worst air in the world

The Indian capital has grown quite a lot economically in the past decade. Every day, some 1,200 cars are added, and the city is always bustling with new construction sites, under a smog of particle matter and racket. Delhi’s geography doesn’t help that much either. Located in a bowl-like setting, the city traps all its dirty air when the weather is cool.

So, how bad is it? One of the capital’s neighborhoods Anand Vihar, a residential and business district, has measured PM 2.5 levels —the tiny particulate matter that causes the most damage to human health— at 580. This is the highest in the world! PM 10 levels, the larger particles, sit even higher as the data below shows. Bear in mind these were taken before rush hour. The rest of the city isn’t doing much better either. Air quality fluctuates from “unhealthy” to “hazardous” throughout the city.

new delhi air pollution

Outside of Anand Vihar, the worst offender in Asia on a PM 2.5 basis right now is Wucheng, China, with a PM 2.5 level of 469. The air in Europe and the Americas is considerably cleaner, with the trouble spots in Tel Aviv (PM 2.5 156) and Tulare, California (PM 2.5 161).

Local authorities introduced various measures to control the situation like public transportation running on compressed natural gas (CNG). Yet, most of these measures happened in 2001. Since then, the government seems to be unable to keep up with the city’s expansion and growing needs. New Delhi has amassed more vehicles than the total number in the three other large cities of the country, namely Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai.

PM 2.5 levels across Asia.

PM 2.5 levels in North America and Europe.

PM 2.5 levels in North America and Europe.

It’s not only cars, power plants and construction work that’s ruining Delhi’s air, though. The System of Air Quality Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR), an air quality monitor in the capital linked the peaking of PM 2.5 to burning of agriculture waste in the bordering states of Punjab and Haryana.

“The winds blowing towards Delhi from the northwest are passing by the area where a lot of agricultural waste is being produced. If the capital gets colder in the coming days, the smog situation will intensify,” a SAFAR report said.

The pollution levels in the capital have also triggered various lung diseases in the city.

“There has been a sudden increase in the number of asthma patients in the past few weeks. Though we expect such cases only in mid-December when the cold weather intensifies in the city, many people have visited our clinic complaining breathing troubles, especially children, babies and senior citizens. Cases of heart and lung infections have also shot up,” said Dr V K Saxena who runs a clinic at Rohini, North-west Delhi.

Pollution is a wide spread issue across the whole of India, be it rural or urban setting. Comparing crop yields in 2010 to what they would be expected to be if temperature, rainfall and pollution remained at their 1980 levels, researchers showed that crop yields for wheat were on average 36%lower than they otherwise would have been, while rice production decreased by up to 20%. In some higher population states, wheat yields were as much as 50% lower.


A simple, elegant and effective way of getting water out of thin air

Most people would are surprised when they hear that 768 million people don’t have access to clean water. That’s twice and over the population of the US, and 50% more than that of the European Union! Something as simple and basic as access to water is denied (or greatly hardened) for them. Italian designer Arturo Vittori and Swiss architect Andreas Vogler learned this first hand when they visited Ethiopia, where people have to walk miles and miles for clean water.

Vittori and Vogler acknowledged this problem, and, through their firm, Architecture and Vision, have come up with a potential solution: drawing water from thin air. WarkaWater, which is named after an Ethiopian fig tree, is composed of a 30-foot bamboo frame which can be relatively easily and sustainably built, containing a fog-harvesting nylon net that can be easily lowered for repairs and to allow communities to measure the water level. A simple and effective solution.

Now, gathering water from this type of construction is hardly a new idea. MIT researchers have been working in Chile for years trying to find a suitable solution. Peruvians have developed some technologies as well, and the list goes on and on. But so far, the only technologies that have shown some signs of success have been simple, and low maintenance.

This is where WarkaWater could shine – since it’s quite low tech and requires little maintenance, it could be ideal for the harsh environment of the rocky Ethiopian plateau. Each water tower costs $550 if produced individually, and the price could drop significantly if they were mass produced; for this price, it would gather an estimated 26 gallons of drinkable water a day – enough for a family of seven. It also requires limited knowledge from the users.

“Once locals have the necessary know-how, they will be able to teach other villages and communities to build the WarkaWater towers,” says Vittori, who is already working on WarkaWater 2.0, an upgraded version that may include solar panels and LED bulbs to provide light after dark.

The only problem, as usually is money. The two are currently trying to raise funds to start producing these towers in Ethiopia next year. And WarkaWater could also prove useful in other areas, like deserts, where water availability is also a huge problem.

Air Umbrella

A scientist’s umbrella: the air umbrella shields wearer without any canopy

Air Umbrella

The first use of the umbrella, albeit in a more primitive form, can be traced back to ancient times. In Persia the parasol is repeatedly found in the carved work of Persepolis, while others works such as sculptures frequently depict figures likes a king in his chariot, with an attendant holding a parasol over his head. Similarly in ancient Greece and Rome, however the first reference to a collapsible umbrella dates to the year 21 A.D. from ancient China. Since then, the basic design that has led to the modern umbrella design has changed very little.


It’s not at all surprising though that after centuries of intense technological advances, the design of the umbrella hasn’t changed that all – it’s practical, cheap and it works. Korean designers Je Sung Park and Woo Jung Kwon aim, however, to shift the paradigm in terms of how we might shelter ourselves from the rain in the streets. At first glance, their design – the air umbrella – is nothing more than a plastic stick or … an invisible umbrella. However, don’t let the simple fact that this is an umbrella with  no canopy fool you into thinking this is useless – far from it!


Instead of a canopy, the air umbrella works by creating a wind shield, as air is sucked through the bottom of the stick, then shot out of the top in a pattern that mimics the standard canopy.  Power and canopy size controls reside toward the bottom of the shaft, providing users with the ability to strengthen the force of the air and widen the canopy in order to adjust for heavier rains. Not only would these features protect against storms when a standard umbrella normally may not, but the air curtain has a better chance to survive strong winds than a flimsy nylon covering.


The user can also adjust the size of the handle, so you can make your umbrella as tall as you’d like. Also, there’s no more need to shake and dry your umbrella when coming indoors. It does have on significant flaw, however – battery life. Apparently, a short trek through the rain might find you right in the middle of a power outage, making a plastic stick all that’s between you and the thunder storm upstairs. This is still only a concept though, and if the design can be improved, as in battery life, I’ll be one of the many to lineup for one!