Tag Archives: smog

Beijing shuts down its last coal power plant, replaces with natural gas

On Saturday, Beijing officially closed its last big coal-fired power station. The move has been welcomed by environmental groups and furthers the country’s progress towards the emission reduction targets agreed in Paris. 

It's the last of four coal-fired plants to be shut down in Beijing.

It’s the last of four coal-fired plants to be shut down in Beijing.

Back in 2013, Beijing officials promised that the city’s four coal-fired thermal power stations would be closed by this year — and on Saturday, they’ve honored that pledge. The closure of Huaneng Beijing Thermal Power Plant has been hailed in Chinese state media as Beijing is now the first city in the country with a coal-free electricity and heating supply. The city’s mayor, Cai Qi, said that “[r]eplacing coal with clean energy is not only to deal with air pollution but also a requirement of the company’s transformation.”

There’s no ‘coal’ in ‘energy’

The coal-fired generator won’t be scrapped right away but kept as a back-up in case things go south while the replacement power plant, this time burning natural gas, comes into operation. The three other coal plants have already been replaced with natural gas systems.

Huaneng said that by shutting down the generator, they’re cutting coal consumption by 1.6 million tonnes a year. So the closure is a big step towards China’s commitment to reduce coal use by 11.8 million tonnes by the end of 2017 compared to 2012. With this latest contribution, the country is some 70% of the way towards achieving that goal.

There’s an extra benefit for Beijing locals, who have had to put up with some downright terrifying levels of smog and air pollution. While natural gas plants are far from ideal, since they still produce nitrogen oxide which affects air quality, they’re way better than what coal spews out. Greenpeace China’s air pollution spokesman Liansai Dong has applauded the move away from coal, saying that the closure of the plant was just one in a series of steps Beijing has taken to combat air pollution and declaring central Beijing as a “zero coal zone.” But he also warned that there is still much to do in China.

“Beijing alone cannot fully solve its air pollution problem. Surrounding provinces like Hebei should develop more renewable energy and accelerate on phasing out coal power and other coal boilers […] If we want to solve the problem of climate change and air pollution, of which coal and fossil fuels are the cause, we should transfer to renewable energy,” he said.

“China has made some progress and we hope China can keep up this ambitious pace.”

Dong said “quite a lot” of renewable energy was being developed across China, which can boast the most solar and wind capacity installed over the last year. This is in line with China’s National Development and Reform Commission’s pledge to lower coal’s share in the energy market to 58% by 2020, while raising non-fossil to 15% or more and natural gas to 10%.

The next problem, he says, is distribution and “how to integrate clean and green energy into the energy system”.


London toxic air alert goes to ‘very high’

Londoners are warned not to engage in any strenuous physical activity as Britain’s capital battles rough pollution.

Ironically, wood stoves are partly to blame for this. Image credits: David Holt.

For the first time, mayor Sadiq Khan has issued a toxic air alert for the city, after detectors in several parts of the city (Westminster, north Kensington, and three sites in Camden) recorded abnormally high pollution in the air.

“The shameful state of London’s toxic air today has triggered a ‘very high’ air pollution alert under my new air quality warning system,” wrote Mr Khan in a tweet.

“London’s filthy air is a health crisis and our children are particularly vulnerable to the toxic effects of air pollution,” he added in a further statement.

The new alert system, Airtext, was launched last summer and displays pollution levels on electronic signs at bus stops, metro stations, and in some places, on the roadside.

In the very high level, all adults are advised to avoid intense physical activity outside, and people at risk (children, elderly, and those with lung problems) to avoid physical activity altogether. Khan has urged people to use public transportation and drivers to behave more responsibly, but this is too little in a crowded city that’s been struggling with pollution for a long time.

It’s not like this came out of nowhere. In January 2016, London broke its NO2 pollution limits in just 8 days and was promptly sued as a response. They lost the trial and are taking some action, but it’s clearly not enough. London’s pollution is constantly high and there’s no real improvement in sight. Even during regular days, most of the city still suffers high pollution levels — something that shouldn’t really happen in any large city, let alone one like London.

Ironically, for a city that prides itself on technological advancement and innovation, wood burning stoves were blamed for exacerbating the problem. It’s been unusually cold in London these days, and apparently, people are turning to wood stoves to fix that problem. Demand for such stoves has tripled in the last five years and continues to increase as people want to save money on electricity. But the cost is clearly too great — it costs Londoners their health.

“Children living and attending school in highly polluted areas are more likely to have damaged lungs when they grow up,” said Dr Penny Woods, Chief Executive of the British Lung Foundation. “

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. Many of those take place in London.

“Air pollution contributes to 9,500 early deaths in London every year. It worsens existing lung conditions and increases the risk of getting lung cancer,” Woods added. “It’s a complete no-brainer: investing in making cycling and walking safer and more accessible in our cities – and moving towards ditching diesel will not only help clear up our roads, but will clean up the air we’re all breathing too.”

China’s smog was so bad you could barely see its skyscrapers from air

As we previously reported, China is experiencing a dramatic smog crisis – again. For someone who’s never been to China, it’s hard to emphasize just how severe this problem is. Recently, aerial photos showed that you can barely see the top of the skyscrapers in Beijing because of the smog.

Image credits: @jimsciutto/Twitter

This photo tweeted by CNN chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto shows just how bad the smog situation has gotten and how much it has enveloped the Chinese capital. The main cause of the smog is, of course, air pollution. Last week, the concentration of PM 2.5 in Beijing was as high as 186 µg/m3, which is considered unhealthy, being almost four times over the “good” air quality.

The problem is exacerbated by weather. It’s been really cold in China recently, which caused the city to burn more coal to heat themselves. Burning coal eliminates particulate matter, which then gets trapped by the cold air like a blanket. The air in Beijing is

The air quality in Beijing is often appalling, but it gets even worse in the winter when the cold air traps the pollution in the city. In mid-January 2013, Beijing’s air quality was measured on top of the city’s US embassy at a PM2.5 density of 755 micrograms per cubic meter, which literally went off the charts. The US Environmental Protection Agency’s air quality index stops at 500.

A 2015 study found that smog kills on average 4,000 people every day in China.

“Air pollution is extensive in China, with the highest particulate concentrations observed south of Beijing (e.g. Xingtai / Handan) [..]. Extensive pollution is not surprising since particulate matter can remain airborne for days to weeks and travel thousands of kilometers. The corridor south of Beijing contains the highest pollution concentrations and, as discussed below, many of the largest sources. During this study, the southern coastal area experienced somewhat better air quality, possibly linked to greater rainfall,” the study wrote at the time.

China’s north is crippled by winter smog crisis. People advised to stay indoors because ‘The snow is very dirty!’

An unusual thick and prolonged smog event is plaguing China’s northern part of the country. Being winter, much more coal is being burned nowadays to supply heat and the resulting emissions have significantly worsened air quality in hundreds of cities, where it was already hazardous to begin with.

Don’t you eat that yellow gray snow


According to the nation’s Ministry of Environmental Protection, 62 percent of Chinese cities registered an air quality index (AQI) over 100, which is considered unhealthy. The Wolrd Health Organization says a safe AQI level is 25. About 7.1 percent of the monitored cities, including the capital Beijing, had an AQI over 300 which is deemed hazardous and 31 cities have issued red alerts. In fact, things are so bad that the Beijing’s Meteorological Bureau took to Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, to warn residents they should by no means touch the snow. Instead, people are advised to stay indoors and if they have to go outside, they should use an umbrella to avoid direct contact with the snow tainted with hazardous emissions.

“We suggest everybody stays indoors. The snow is very dirty! The snow is very dirty! The snow is very dirty!” the bureau announced on Thursday. Notice the triple warning.

Check out this timelapse from Jan. 2 illustrating how smog sweeps through Beijing on what seemed like a clear, sunny day.

Beijing has it easy, though, compared to the industrial city of Daqing, which is known for its oil&gas refineries. Here, sensors registered an AQI of 999, which is literally off the charts.


Smog is a common occurrence in China, despite we’re sometimes surprised by extreme readings, even for them. This is the result of three decades worth of unabated economic growth at all costs. The tab has been filling up in the past decade and it’s now time to pay up. It’s worth mentioning, however, that the local government is taking important steps to prevent smog exposure and accumulation.

In its 5-year-plan, the Chinese cabinet announced it will cut sulphur dioxide, a key contributor to air pollution produced by power plants and industry, by 15 percent by 2020. Clear, more efficient fuels will be promoted for transportation and the share of public transport will be upped to 30 percent of total traffic in major cities by 2020. Most importantly, a staggering $360 bn. will go to funding renewable energy projects until 2020. China is already the world’s leader in renewable energy in the world by far, in terms of newly installed energy generation capacity. Given the current situation, however, China might actually have to invest even more and faster to secure the health of its citizens. In cities with hazardous AQI levels, smog is considered just as bad as smoking and puts 1 in 3 people at risk of dying prematurely.



Smog kills more than 400 people in Iran’s capital Tehran

Unprecedented levels of smog pollution in Iran’s capital have killed over 400 people and pose an extreme threat to human health.

Tehran these days. Image credits: Hamid Najafi

Over 9 million people call Tehran their home, and 7 other million live in the nearby metropolitan area – unfortunately, Tehran is also one of the most polluted cities in the world. Inhabitants have gotten used to severe environmental issues. Around this time every year, a thick curtain of toxic fog falls upon the city, but now it’s even worse than usual.

Habib Kashani, a member of Tehran’s municipal council, said on Tuesday that pollution in Tehran had killed 412 citizens in the past 23 days, and the tally continues. Schools have been closed and people have been advised to stay inside or wear masks when going outside.

The concentration of ultra-fine particulate matters PM2.5 has reached 156, over the 150 level, which is already considered unhealthy. In some parts of the city, it was as high as 167, prompting authorities to apologize to tourists. However, no one seemed to apologize to the locals.

‘We hope our people’s hospitality wipes the grey image of Tehran’s beautiful attractions from their minds,’ the capital’s tourism boss Rajab Ali Khosroabadi told the ISNA news agency.

PM2.5 is considered to be the best measure of the impact of air pollution on health. The World Health Organisation recently released a report in which it showed that Tehran isn’t the only city in the area suffering from this problem. The report highlighted the Iranian city of Zabol, on the eastern border with Afghanistan, as the world’s most polluted city.

Tehran’s situation is also exacerbated by its geographical position and a phenomenon called temperature inversion. Usually, polluted air is warmer and disperses high above the ground, but in Tehran (like in other places around the Earth), a warm blanket is created above the pollution, keeping it all tucked inside the city. But for the most part, Tehran itself is to blame.

Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf rode the metro to work Sunday in a bid to encourage people to use public transport. Some 80% of pollution comes from its cars, and another 20% is due to local industry. Local newspaper Ebtekar said that at least 1.25m obsolete cars were still in use in Tehran and 60% of the times, cars only carry one person. Another local publisher, the reformist daily Etemaad published a black column on its front page saying “We are all to blame.” It continued arguing that “you are not switching off your cars” and “they [officials] are only capable of closing schools”.

The pollution is so severe that there are concrete plans to move the capital to another city, with the 2010 government stating that “for security and administrative reasons, the plan to move the capital from Tehran has been finalized.” However, no official plans have been presented and even if they are, that wouldn’t really address the problem.

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.


Climate change could add twice as many smog days in the United States

The ozone layer is a protective blanket of triple oxygen atoms that makes up the stratosphere and shelters life on Earth from ultraviolet radiation. A couple decades ago, a huge hole was punctured into the ozone layer above Antarctica which got a lot of people worried. Thankfully, it’s been sealed since thanks to a remarkable international effort that drastically reduced the chemical in the air that were puncturing. At ground level, however, ozone is pretty bad if you inhale it and is one of the main components of smog. As the planet warms, polluted air will react more often with the sun’s ray to form more ozone. A new study suggests that in the United States, residents might experience three to nine more days of unhealthy ozone levels by 2050.


Credit: NASA

Ozone occurs naturally at ground-level in low concentrations. The two major sources of natural ground-level ozone are hydrocarbons, which are released by plants and soil, and small amounts of stratospheric ozone, which occasionally migrate down to the earth’s surface. Neither of these two can release enough ozone for it to be considered a threat to health. That’s where man-made activities come in.

Since 1900, the amount of ozone near the earth’s surface has more than doubled. We make ground-ozone by emitting hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides from automobiles, gasoline vapors, fossil fuel power plants, refineries and other industries. When these chemicals react with sunlight, particularly ultraviolet rays, ozone — a molecule comprised of three oxygen atoms (O3) — is formed.


Credit: nh.gov

Researchers at the Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) looked at how tropospheric ozone generation will be affected across the United States based on projected temperature increases due to climate change. The team was careful to include ozone suppression into their equations, a phenomenon in which very hot temperatures actually impede ozone formation.

“Ozone production accelerates at high temperatures, and emissions of the natural components of ozone increase. High temperatures are also accompanied by weak winds, causing the atmosphere to stagnate. So the air just cooks and ozone levels can build up,” said Harvard’s Loretta Mickley, who also worked on the study.

Despite ozone suppression, many regions of the United States will experience more ozone and, consequently, more smog. California, already the state with the most air pollution, the Southwest, and the Northeast could all get up to nine extra days a year of ozone past safe levels.

These are mean changes from 2000-2009 to 2050-2059 in ozone episode days due to climate change. Credit: Lu Shen/Harvard University

These are mean changes from 2000-2009 to 2050-2059 in ozone episode days due to climate change. Credit: Lu Shen/Harvard University

“In the coming decades, global climate change will likely cause more heat waves during the summer, which in turn could cause a 70 to 100 percent increase in ozone episodes, depending on the region,” Lu Shen, a graduate student at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, who led the study, said in a statement.

Ozone pollution is linked to shortness of breath, asthma attacks, increased risk of respiratory infections, heart disease and even infertility.

“This research gives us a much better understanding of how ozone and temperature are related and how that will affect future air quality,” Mickley said. “These results show that we need ambitious emissions controls to offset the potential of more than a week of additional days with unhealthy ozone levels.”

Findings appeared in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. 



A woman wearing a mask walk through a street covered by dense smog in Harbin, northern China, Monday, Oct. 21, 2013. Visibility shrank to less than half a football field and small-particle pollution soared to a record 40 times higher than an international safety standard in one northern Chinese city as the region entered its high-smog season. (AP Photo/Kyodo News)

Beijing wages war on smog: plans to reach clean air by 2030

The Chinese capital is notoriously polluted and frequently plagued by smog, a noxious gas mixture made of  nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, ozone, smoke or particulates. While 2015 saw cleaner air in Beijing than the year before, the current state of affairs lack in resolution, as echoed by concerned Beijing residents. With a lot of planning, hard work and a bit of luck, this situation might change for the far better as the Beijing Environmental Monitoring Center announced it plans to cut airborne pollution by more than 200% by 2030.

A woman wearing a mask walk through a street covered by dense smog in Harbin, northern China, Monday, Oct. 21, 2013. Visibility shrank to less than half a football field and small-particle pollution soared to a record 40 times higher than an international safety standard in one northern Chinese city as the region entered its high-smog season. (AP Photo/Kyodo News)

A woman wearing a mask walk through a street covered by dense smog in Harbin, northern China, Monday, Oct. 21, 2013. Visibility shrank to less than half a football field and small-particle pollution soared to a record 40 times higher than an international safety standard in one northern Chinese city as the region entered its high-smog season. (AP Photo/Kyodo News)

Though there are many indicators that reflect air quality, the main one specialists use as a proxy for overall quality is the PM2.5 level. This is the concentration of microscopic particles with a diameter less than 2.5 microns that can penetrate the lungs and harm health. In 2015, PM2.5 fell to  80.6 micrograms per cubic meter: a 6.2% year-to-year reduction, or a bit better than the municipality’s intended goal of 5%. Beijing residents aren’t that impressed, though, and most say don’t notice the difference.

“I didn’t feel the clear improvement in air quality in the winter, and many of my friends and colleagues have coughed and experienced sore throats due to the bad air recently,” said Chen Yang, 29, who works in a printing house in Beijing.

The last big smog events in November and December when Beijing issued a smog red alert — the highest in a  four-tier pollution alert system — may have had something do with it. Before smog blanketed the capital at the end of the year, Beijing had managed to cut the PM2.5 daily average readings by 20 percent year-on-year, said Zhang Dawei, head of the Beijing Environmental Monitoring Center.

To fight smog last year, Beijing cut 12 million metric tons of coal consumption and switched over 300,000 households in Dongcheng and Xicheng districts from coal-fired boilers to electrical heating. Now, the State Council (China’s Cabinet) wants to lower  PM2.5 readings to 60 by 2017, which is the the national safety standard. By 2030, the state hopes to lower PM2.5 to 35.

London - December 1952 during the Great Smog. Photo: History.com

London – December 1952 during the Great Smog. Photo: History.com

Frankly PM2.5 of 35 sounds extremely unrealistic at this point, but not impossible. After all we have a precedent.

One of the most smog plagued cities in history used to be London. In December 1952, a streak lasting days smothered the British capital with a  toxic fog. The Great Smog as it remained in history killed an estimated 4,000 Londoners, but even before the Great Smog London used to have frequent smog events, albeit much less severe. Following a government investigation, however, Parliament passed the Clean Air Act of 1956, which restricted the burning of coal in urban areas and authorized local councils to set up smoke-free zones. Homeowners received grants to convert from coal to alternative heating systems. The UK’s Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), senior scientific advisor for air quality Emily Connolly points out that the city’s average PM2.5 level is now 20. “And for us that’s serious,” she says. Someone from Beijing might laugh in her face though, having lived through days of PM2.5 of 600 micrograms per cubic metre in January, 2013.

In all events, London servers as an example from Beijing, though the scale the Chinese authorities need to tackle seems grander and, perhaps, more challenging than what the British capital had to face in the ’50s and ’60s.

State of emergency in Beijing after city issues smog Red Alert for the first time

Talks are in full force in Paris at the COP21 climate change conference, but meanwhile in China, Beijing is going through one of its hardest smog events ever. The mayor of Beijing announced on Monday  its first red alert for pollution, showing that Chinese smog is still a huge problem.

Beijing smoga

Image: Pixabay

Beijing uses a  four-tier pollution alert system, with red being the highest. Just so you can get an idea of the state of affairs here in Beijing at the moment, last week the mayor issued an orange alert for smog when life threatening particle matter measured in the air was 10 times over the limit determined safe by the World Health Organization. Now, the government  shut down schools, stopped outdoor construction, and implemented a restrictive car usage law that only allows odd-numbered licence plates to drive in a single day. Even-number licence plates drive the next day.

China is the biggest polluter in the world, and Beijing is one of the dirtiest places on Earth in terms of pollution, surpassed only by New Delhi in India. The haze is so strong that you can barely see a couple tens of feet in front of you. Beijing residents rarely go out without a mask, especially during the winter. Just a regular day of living in a coal mine Beijing.

The ‘red alert’ announcement, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that things are much worse than they have been. Previously, equally bad or even worse smog events plagued Beijing. “The issuing of a ‘red’ pollution alert means, first and foremost, that the Beijing authorities are taking air quality, and related health issues, very seriously,” Dr. Bernhard Schwartländer, the representative of the World Health Organization in China.

So, effectively, we’re seeing more acceptance at an official level that smog is a serious problem to its citizens. Beijing is stepping-up its game, and it’s about time too. New research on the health impacts of outdoor air pollution suggests that smog is responsible for more than 3 million premature deaths around the world each year and that this number could double by 2050. China suffers the most, accounting for more than 40% of air pollution-related deaths worldwide – more than 1.3m each year.

During the 2008 summer Olympics, the thousands of westerners who flocked to Beijing were ‘disappointed’ to see that there was no smog. The government cleaned the air in advance by suspending or restricting the operations of 12,255 coal-burning boilers, factories and cement-mixing stations scattered among seven provinces. That sounds impractical now, but it does show that the problem can be solved. After all, smog used to be a day to day reality in the early days of industrialized Europe. Remember London’s great smog?

What China  hopes to achieve in the near future is move most of its heavy industries like steel mills in less populated areas of the country, coupled with a serious shift to renewable energy. Ten years from now, Beijing will hopefully have clean air all year long — not just during military parades.

Chinese artist vacuumed smog and turned it into a brick

As China’s cities struggle with smog more and more, one man has started an interesting project to raise awareness: he wandered the streets of Beijing with a vacuum cleaner gathering smog and turned it into a brick.

Day 98, cloudy, Wangjing Soho. Image credits: Nut Brother.

Meet “Nut Brother,” a 34-year-old artist and activist from Shenzhen. Of course, he understands vacuuming smog will do nothing to change the quality of air in the city, but that’s not his aim – he wants to raise awareness about the fight against climate change, especially in the context of the COP21 climate summit in Paris.

“I want to show this absurdity to more people,” Wang, 34, said on Tuesday as pollution levels in the Chinese capital soared to levels 40 times higher than those deemed safe by the World Health Organisation. “I want people to see that we cannot avoid or ignore this problem [and] that we must take real action.”

Image credits: Nut Brother.

Ironically, while he was walking on the streets of Beijing, people would often ask him if he was an air cleaner and they were glad that efforts are being done to clean the air. Both environmentalists and local citizens are disheartened by the situation, especially as no solution seems to be in order.

“The shocking levels of air pollution we have seen in the last few days are a serious danger to the health of hundreds of millions of citizens,” said Dong Liansai, Greenpeace’s climate campaigner in China. “Moreover, the Beijing city government’s insufficient alerting system has compounded the problem.”

Day 36, sunny, Tiananmen Square. Image credits: Nut Brother.

It took him 100 days to plan and gather enough smog with his vacuum; after that, he mixed what he collected with clay and took it to a brick factory. The brick is now drying up, and it will be ready for display in a couple of days. In total, he gathered about 100 grams, and added a few kilograms of clay, which means that his brick isn’t that different from other bricks, but it’s a symbol.

The next step, he says, is to give the new brick to a building in Beijing, just like “just like putting a drop of water in the ocean.”


grimy building

Not just ugly: grimy buildings help build smog in the sunshine

Dirty buildings emit ozone when exposed to light, the main compound found in smog which is dangerous to public health.  Up until now, grimy urban buildings weren’t included in models that assess how polluted an urban area is, but the new findings suggest their contribution is significant. Dirty buildings are thus not only unpleasant to look at, but also detrimental to your health.

grimy building

Image: Flickr

In busy urban environments, grime naturally gathers on the surface of buildings due to the thousands of volatile compounds that litter the atmosphere. Thousands of substances make up grime, mostly gases exhausted from automobiles, factories and other human activities. Among these compounds is nitrogen oxides, which when exposed to light split the molecules into nitric oxide and an oxygen atom. The free oxygen atom then naturally combines with oxygen molecules to produce ozone. High up in the sky, ozone forms readily in the stratosphere as incoming ultraviolet radiation breaks molecular oxygen. This process shelters all livings things from harmful ultraviolet radiation. If there wasn’t any ozone in the stratosphere, we’d be in for a lot of trouble. At ground level, though, ozone is a pollutant and serious health hazard. It’s the main component of smog, a mixture that also includes sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxides and carbon monoxide.

The nitrogen oxides fixated in the grime on buildings was thought to be stable, but this new research led by James Donaldson, a chemistry professor at the University of Toronto, suggests otherwise. Him and his team first got a hint when they found nitrate anions disappeared from grime at faster rates than could be explained by wash-off due to rainfall. Subsequent examination in the lab revealed that the nitrate leached 10,000 times faster from grime than from a water-based solution when both mediums were exposed to light.

Glass beads collecting grime. Image: Alyson Baergen

Glass beads collecting grime. Image: Alyson Baergen

These findings encouraged the researchers to experiment in the field. Grime was collected from the surface of various buildings in Toronto, Canada and Leipzig, Germany. The grime was collected using glass beads placed beneath grimy surfaces since the spherical beads have a greater surface area than a flat covering, say a window. Then, Donaldson left some of the collection devices out in the open sun, while others were left in the shade. Both setups leached nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere, but beads left in the sun produced 10% more.

“The current understanding of urban air pollution does not include the recycling of nitrogen oxides and potentially other compounds from building surfaces,” says Donaldso. “But based on our field studies in a real-world environment, this is happening. We don’t know yet to what extent this is occurring, but it may be quite a significant, and unaccounted for, contributor to air pollution in cities.”

“If our suspicions are correct, it means that the current understanding of urban air pollution is missing a big chunk of information,” Donaldson says. “In our work, we are showing that there is the potential for significant recycling of nitrogen oxides into the atmosphere from grime, which could give rise to greater ozone creation.”

Municipalities might want to include these findings in their environmental investigations, considering smog is an important health risk. According to the American Lung Association, 44% of Americans live in areas were smog levels are above safe levels. At the extreme, smog in China kills 4,000 people each day.

The findings were presented at the 250th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS).

China’s smog kills 4,000 people each day

We all know that pollution and smog in China is pretty bad, but China has only recently published their air quality data – so now we get to know just how bad it is. According to a new study published by Berkeley Earth, smog alone kills 4,000 people in China every day; that’s 17% of all premature fatalities.

Smog in Beijing. Image via City Lab.

Air pollution is a major problem throughout the entire world, especially in the developing world. Some studies have found that air pollution kills more people than AIDS or Malaria, and airborne particulate matter is especially detrimental to health. The study found 38 percent of Chinese people live with daily pollution that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rates “unhealthy”.

“Air pollution is extensive in China, with the highest particulate concentrations observed south of Beijing (e.g. Xingtai / Handan) [..]. Extensive pollution is not surprising since particulate matter can remain airborne for days to weeks and travel thousands of kilometers. The corridor south of Beijing contains the highest pollution concentrations and, as discussed below, many of the largest sources. During this study, the southern coastal area experienced somewhat better air quality, possibly linked to greater rainfall,” the study writes.

The team analyzed data only from 2014 and 2015, because although China’s air quality data recently became available, archived data is still not available – they had to extrapolate based on what they had – but the results are very clear. Without the shadow of a doubt, air quality in most of China is simply hazardous for the health. As a reference point, 99.9 percent of the eastern half of China breathes a higher concentration of small particulate matter than people in the city of Madera, California, the city in the US with the worst air quality. In other words, almost all of China breathes worse air than the worst place in the US.

Also, unlike in the US, in China, air pollution becomes worse in the winter, because of burning of coal to heat homes and weather conditions that keeps dirty air closer to the ground. These are some very rough figures, and China will have a very tough time dealing with this problem. They’re taking some steps in the right direction, but one can only wonder – is it too late?



Indian lives cut short by three years from pollutoin

India is among the most polluted country in the world, a direct consequence of its growth-orientated policy. Despite economic growth, the health of Indians is suffering significantly. According to researchers at University of Chicago, Harvard and Yale, pollution is directly responsible for shortening the lives of 660 million Indians who live in sensitive areas by three years on average. In total 2.1 billion life-years are lost.


Image: SG Talk

Previous studies have shown particle matter pollution reduces productivity at work, increases the incidence of sick days and raises health care expenses. The new study adds a new dimension to the perils of rapid industrialization – shorter lives due to pollution.

Some 13 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world were in India. The list is in fact trumped by New Delhi, which long overthrew Beijing.  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. Every additional 100 micrograms of total suspended particulate matter per cubic meter in the atmosphere lowers life expectancy at birth by three years. India has the highest rate of death caused by chronic respiratory diseases anywhere in the world.

“The loss of more than two billion life years is a substantial price to pay for air pollution. It is in India’s power to change this in cost-effective ways that allow hundreds of millions of its citizens to live longer, healthier and more productive lives. Reforms of the current form of regulation would allow for health improvements that lead to increased growth,” said Rohini Pande, a study co-author and director of Evidence for Policy Design at the Harvard Kennedy School.

The authors propose two cost-effective solution that the Indian government could make improve their citizens’ health:

  • Install more real-time monitoring stations. In most of the country, authorities rely on measurements taken one or twice a year from plant samples, which are far from adequate. Moreover, visible stations will help raise awareness to the situation among the population.
  • Move from criminal to civil penalties. India’s penalties for pollution are extremely severe including imprisonment or closure. Ironically, because they’re so harsh, the penalties rarely come into effect. A civil system based on a market-approach to managing emissions might be a lot better, since it wouldn’t necessarily curb industry growth – an argument often raised by some parties against civil penalties.

The findings appeared in Economic & Politically Weekly

Texas chief toxicologist: No need for smog regulations, just stay indoor

Dr. Michael Honeycutt, the top toxicologist in the state of Texas argued that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) shouldn’t tighten smog rules because there would be little to no health benefit.

“Ozone is an outdoor air pollutant because systems such as air conditioning remove it from indoor air,” he argues on a blog post on the TCEQ website. “Since most people spend more than 90 percent of their time indoors, we are rarely exposed to significant levels of ozone.”

I don’t even know where to start – so I’ll try to take it slow. The overwhelming majority of scientists argue that the EPA should tighten ozone restrictions. In 2008, the agency set the current ozone standard at 75 parts per billion (ppb). However, in June this year, the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) somewhere between 60 and 70 ppb. A judge then ruled that the EPA has to draft a tighter smog rule by December, and the agency is expected to do so. However, Dr. Honeycutt, the head of the toxicology division of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has a different opinion. He has joined Texas Republicans and others nationwide who firmly oppose imposing tighter rules on pollution.

Downtown Houston in October, 2008. The city has severe smog issues and new research suggests that pollution from fracking contributes significantly to the problem.

He offers two main arguments – the first one being that ‘people already spend 90 percent of their time indoor’, so why bother reducing smog levels? Well, I’m not gonna bother and explain why that argument is flawed on so many levels, and instead, I’m gonna discuss the second argument. He claims that the slight increase in premature deaths that could result if ozone standards are lowered — due to the fact that lowering levels of nitrogen oxide can temporarily increase ozone levels because nitrogen also helps dissipate ozone. This is indeed true – or at least this is what the accepted models show; but that doesn’t mean that this is a good argument, because in the long run, lowering smog levels would definitely save lives. Elena Craft, a senior health scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund compared this situation to smokers who quit smoking, and have a higher risk of lung cancer right after quitting smoking.

“That doesn’t mean that you don’t quit smoking,” Craft said. The premature death prediction “does not mean pollution is good for you. It means that you need to double down on the efforts to reduce emissions in the air.”

A recent study suggests that the increasing activity in shale gas and oil drilling in the state of Texas has contributed significantly to an increase in ozone levels.

Ground ozone pollution in India destroys enough crops to feed 94 million

Smog in India. Ozone, the main component of smog, is a plant-damaging pollutant formed by emissions from vehicles, cooking stoves and other sources. Credit: Mark Danielson/Flickr

Smog in India. Ozone, the main component of smog, is a plant-damaging pollutant formed by emissions from vehicles, cooking stoves and other sources. Credit: Mark Danielson/Flickr

Like most developing nations, India is burning a lot of coal to catch ground. As always the case with compromises such as these, economic growth comes at the expense of the environment. Pollution in Delhi, the capital, has reached levels comparable to Beijing, which is when you know you’ve hit a new low. A new study found high concentrations of surface ozone killed enough crops to feed 94 million people who are living below the poverty line. The total damage during 2005, the year the researchers gathered and analyzed data for their work, is worth over $1 billion.

The study

Surface ozone is formed when nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds react with sunlight after the chemicals’ release from vehicles, industry, or burning of wood or other plant or animal matter. You can recognize it easily when it’s in high concentrations – it has an acrid smell like the one you sense when you’re around spark producing machinery.

When ozone comes in contact with plants, it attacks them, halting growth and ruining crops. An international team comprised of scientists from India and the US calculated the amount of total crop damage from ozone pollution by comparing emissions estimates from 2005 with data about how much ozone each of the target crops could withstand (wheat, rice, soybean and cotton).

The data they gathered was fed into a model which showed during the growth season crops were exposed to ozone levels more than 40 to 50 parts per billion over most of the country. Plants start to exhibit damage when they are exposed to ozone levels that reach 40 parts per billion or above. At the end, the researchers found that India’s economic loss from ozone’s harm to crops amounted to $1.29 billion in 2005, most of the loss being attributed to rice and wheat damage.


Indian farmers harvest rice, one of India’s major crops. A new study shows that, in 2005, ozone pollution damaged enough crops to feed 94 million people living in poverty in India.
Credit: Gates Foundation/Flickr

In total, 6 million metric tons (6.7 million U.S. tons) of India’s wheat, rice, soybean and cotton crops were destroyed in 2005 as a result of ozone surface pollution or enough to feed 94 million people below the line of poverty. There are about 270 million Indians that live in poverty, according to the study which was published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

Win some, lose some – how will policymakers in India decide?

The researchers say their findings might help policymakers craft new ozone pollution standards. This idea becomes increasingly important when you factor in that the Indian government wants to introduce a new law that subsidizes grain for two-thirds of the country’s residents. The study, the first of its kind to quantify the effects of ozone pollution on crops in India, suggests that 9.2 percent of the new law’s subsidized cereal requirement are lost.

Reducing ozone generation, especially around the big cities, is no easy task. The number of  vehicles on the road in India has nearly tripled in the past decade, with 130 million vehicles on the road in 2013 compared to 50 million in 2003, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation. Also, there are many coal plants and factories being built. To make things worse, there aren’t any long term measurements of surface ozone in India.

One thing’s for sure, policymakers can not afford to ignore these findings. New bills for clean air that include vehicle emission  and tight industry regulation should be carefully drafted.

NOAA researcher Bryan Johnson (left) and University of Colorado, Boulder, researcher Detlev Helmig (right) prepare a tethered balloon that will collect air samples above Utah’s Uintah Basin. Photo: Chelsea Thompson

Oil and gas fields near rural Utah up to 100 times more polluted than busiest cities

Researchers at the  National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration have published findings that demonstrate what was speculated for a long time – oil and gas drilling in the vicinity of rural Utah is leaking important quantities of volatile chemicals, particularly high ozone levels, that are much higher than those typically found in busy cities. In fact, the pollution in the Uintah Basin is equivalent to that expelled by 100 million cars, even though the region is home to a scarce populace.

One of the largest oil- and gas-producing regions in the U.S., with more than 10,000 wells in operation, the  Uintah Basin also has one of the largest polluting clouds in the world. Unusually high ozone levels have been in the area, and now researchers have found that the atmosphere is packed with  benzene, a carcinogen, and compounds that are precursors of ozone, suggesting serious leaks are happening.

Over two winter months in 2012 and 2013, they used gas chromatography to measure VOC concentrations in ambient air at a site on the northern edge of the basin’s most extensive gas field. Air samples were taken using tethered baloons at a range of altitudes.  Methane and other hydrocarbon volatile compounds known to be released in oil drilling were targeted. This includes benzene and toluene, which are directly toxic to humans.

NOAA researcher Bryan Johnson (left) and University of Colorado, Boulder, researcher Detlev Helmig (right) prepare a tethered balloon that will collect air samples above Utah’s Uintah Basin. Photo: Chelsea Thompson

NOAA researcher Bryan Johnson (left) and University of Colorado, Boulder, researcher Detlev Helmig (right) prepare a tethered balloon that will collect air samples above Utah’s Uintah Basin. Photo: Chelsea Thompson

Most importantly, ozone levels were measured using an ultraviolet absorption monitor. In the stratosphere, the sheet of ozone is imperious to life’s well being on Earth, blocking harmful ultraviolet rays. At low altitudes, close to the ground, ozone is one of the components of smog and is regarded as a pollutant. In urban centers,   ozone forms after  nitrogen oxide  released by the fum exhaust expelled by cars reacts with light.

Needless to say, light alkane volatile compounds in the rural Utah atmosphere were measured at 10 to 100 times greater in concentration that those found in major U.S. cities. Snow cover drives this buildup: It prevents the ground from heating up, which slows surface air from mixing with colder, clean air from higher in the atmosphere. As a result, a layer of air about 50 to 100 m deep stagnates at the surface, accumulating pollutants. These periods coincided with ozone levels that exceeded EPA air quality standards.

Other popular gas and oil drilling sites are experiencing similar problems,  Wyoming or the Colorado Front Range. As a result, gas and oil operators in Colorado were recently forced to tighten their leaks and  capture 95% of their hydrocarbon emissions, including VOCs. Hopefully, similar regulations may become in place at the other sites.

The findings were reported in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

Smog in Beijing reduces life expectancy by 15 years

Image via The Guardian.

The effects of urban pollution in China are started to get out of hand, and by now, it’s pretty safe to say that they are dealing with a major pollution crisis – the smog in Beijing particularly is so severe you can easily see it from outer space. Now, a new study has concluded that the smog alone is so damaging that it reduces the average life expectancy in Beijing by about 15 years.

In most Chinese cities, concentrations of PM2.5 (particulate matter with aerodynamic diameter over 2.5 micrometers) are still far above the level recommended by the World Health Organization’s guidelines on air quality. For example, in Beijing, the level is over 4 times that recommended.

Beijing is surrounded by a heavily industrialized area which relies mostly on coal, which is a very dangerous pollutant. Aside for the ever increasing population and the higher density of cars, the general geography and wind patterns don’t help either, and you end up with a complex ambient pollutant mixture with the potential for combined toxic effects from many constituents.

Yuming Guo and his team obtained meteorological data on daily mean temperature, relative humidity, and air pressure from the China meteorological system’s data sharing service and examined the correlation between the so-called years of life lost (YLL).

Years of life lost is more informative for quantifying premature deaths than mortality risk, which weighs all deaths equally. Increased YLL are associated with increased air pollution.

For each monitoring site, they calculated 24 h mean concentrations from non-missing data, and correlated them with estimated YLL, and found that air pollution, and most noticeably smog causes a reduction of life expectancy by a staggering 15 years. People aged up to 65 years were more affected by air pollutants than those older than 65 years in terms of years of life lost, probably because their mortality rate was higher. The study suggests drastic needs for a reduction in the pollution emissions, and it highlights just how much damage air pollution does in Beijing.

Read the full study here.

Hazardous smog paralyzes 11 million people in China

Residents in China’s northeast region of Harbin are experiencing severe levels of smog pollution, which reduced the visibility to just 10 meters and virtually paralyzed all activities. Today (Monday morning), all schools and airports were closed and public transportation is limited.

harbit air pollution

This is certainly not the first time in recent years when China was faced with obscene levels of pollution (1, 2, 3), the Harbin “Airpocalipse” is quite shocking. The local government reports an air quality index (AQI) of 500, the highest possible reading – basically, the pollution is so high it’s off the charts.

In the past weekend, authorities have reported extremely high levels of smog, and to make matters worse, the municipal’s coal-powered heating system was turned on over the weekend due to low temperatures, further aggravating the problem.

“You can’t see your own fingers in front of you,” the city’s official news site explained. A resident of Harbin commented on China’s microblog platform, Sina Weibo, “You can hear the person you are talking to, but not see him.”

According to Reuters, officials are expecting the thick fog to stick around for 24 hours, until hopefully, rain will come down and wash it (though that raises other problems as well). China’s pollution problems continue to aggravate more and more, giving a clear warning for years to come.

China smog problem persists – Shanghai in trouble too

In case you didn’t know, China has a massive problem with smog; the dark shroud has covered a large part of the country, with Beijing suffering for several days now. But instead of getting better, the situation seems to be worsening day by day; now, Shanghai seems to be feeling the effects of the smog as well.

shanghai smog

I’m not going to discuss how China only has itself to blame for this situation, and how the forced marching industrialization cannot be a good thing in the long term, I’ve already done this in several articles. It’s interesting however to see how companies and people are coping with this matter. Toyota, for example, has put more green plants in its Beijing office to help improve the quality of the air. Most companies, including JP Morgan and Honda are distributing free air masks to employees – unmasked people on the streets of Beijing have quickly become a rarity – you can see the Beijing smog from outer space.

In Shanghai, the official China Daily newspaper reported on Jan. 29, “residents living in the Yangtze River Delta breathed the most polluted air in five years during the past two weeks.” Meanwhile, officials are trying to make this problem a little cuter, with an anime-style cartoon of a girl in pigtails – how else? The girl smiles when the air quality is good, pouts when pollution is moderate, and sobs when the smog is very serious; she also changes her hair colour from green to red depending on air quality.

The only good thing worth noticing is that Beijing, Shanghai, and five other major manufacturing areas in China this year will launch pilot programs to cut carbon emissions. By 2015, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, this program will regulate up to 1 billion tons of emissions, making China trail only Europe in terms of environmental measures.


China braces for intensifying smog

Remember how a few days ago, the entire media and popullation of China was outraged by the smog covering a significant part of China, including Beijing ? The extent of the smog was so big you could easily see it from outer space. Well, predictions claimed the smog will dissipate in a few days, but this wasn’t the case – as a matter of fact, it is intensifying.


Credit: Pixabay

Beijing authorities stepped up their health warnings as thick smog blanketed the Chinese capital and large areas of the country. The city’s 20 million people were urged to shut windows, drink plenty of water and eat a “balanced diet” – especially the children, elder people, and the one suffering from respiratory or cardiovascular conditions.

Meanwhile, the China media and internet community, not exactly known for being vocal (and not exactly allowed to be vocal), are starting to make their voices heard; a campaign for clean air legislation by real estate tycoon and Internet blogger Pan Shiyi is gathering pace. His major economic and political influence is also backed by the popular support he has – over 14 million followers on Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. Pan spearheaded a campaign in 2011 to force Beijing to release transparent details on levels of tiny air particles known as PM2.5.

This campaign was also supported by reform-minded investor Xue Manzi, who has 10 million followers on Weibo, who also has over 10 million followers on Weibo. Public anger continues to grow as the sight of pedestrians wearing masks is becoming more and more common.

“I have lived in Beijing for four years and I have not seen it this bad before,” said domestic cleaner Jiang Hua, who is originally from the central province of Henan. “It just seems so prolonged.”

According to data released by the US embassy, air quality index reading for Beijing stood at 338; a reading of over 150 is believed to be unhealthy, and over 300 is considered hazardous. This is the price China has to pay for their incredibly accelerated industrial and technological development; this is what happens when you grow too fast, without pacing things, and without paying attention to the environment. China’s massive industrialization is greatly dependant on coal, one of the most polluting sources of energy available at the moment. It remains to be seen if they will learn anything from this, or if they will just continue the same way.