Tag Archives: air pollution
Ask almost any scientist how bad air pollution is for people, and the answer is likely, pretty darn bad. Last week, a global report published by the Health Effects Institute found that breathing dirty air shortens the average expected lifespan of a child born today’s by 20 months, compared to how long they would live in the absence of air pollution. Robert O’Keefe, Vice President of the Institute, said in a statement that the research is part of “a growing worldwide consensus – among the World Health Organization, World Bank, International Energy Agency and others – that air pollution poses a major global public health challenge.”
But if you listen to Tony Cox, chair of the Chartered Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee and appointee of former Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt, you’ll hear a completely different message. During a public meeting in late March, Cox said he is “actually appalled” with what he considers a limited body of evidence that links particulate matter in the air with premature death.
Not surprisingly, Cox’s statements have landed him in hot water with prominent scientists and public health advocates who say he could wind up undermining decades of work to clean up America’s air since Cox’s committee has been charged with advising the Environmental Protection Agency on its air quality standards.
The EPA is in the midst of reassessing its national air quality standards, which it does every five years to ensure that it is reviewing the latest scientific evidence available. It recently submitted a 1,800-page ‘Integrated Science Assessment’ compiling research on the health impacts of particulate matter pollution to the Chartered Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, which is independent of the EPA but influential in their final decision. That committee will give its recommendations on whether to strengthen or adjust existing federal standards.
Under the Trump administration, the Chartered Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee has undergone somewhat of a scientific makeunder. For one, the committee is much smaller than it has been in the past, once boasting 28 members and now staffed only by its minimum of seven. Environmental organizations contend that former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt and other members of Trump’s administration appointed largely pro-fossil fuel industry members, including Cox — who has previously worked as a consultant for the American Petroleum Institute and the Truck and Engine Manufacturers Association. The EPA also disbanded a Particulate Matter Review Panel that previously weighed in Integrated Science Assessment alongside Cox’s committee.
As head of the committee advising the EPA on air quality, Cox has recommended that the agency only consider studies that make a causal link between air pollution and health outcomes through a scientific approach called manipulative causality — essentially a way of determining a potential hazard’s effect on health by looking at what happens when exposure stops. But limiting the scientific evidence under consideration to one methodology versus what scientists call a “weight of evidence approach” would exclude the vast body of research on air pollution.
Jonathan Samet, the former chair of the Chartered Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, explained to Grist that using the weight of evidence method has been the practice for policy decisions for half a century. “This is the kind of approach used to decide that smoking causes lung cancer or that smoking causes heart disease,” Samet said.“These are constructs that are broad and holistic and have long been in place,” he said.
Samet compared manipulative causality to waiting to see whether a smoker’s health improves once they quit the habit. The approach can be prohibitively time-consuming, and it’s just one way of assessing the broad health implications of a potential toxin. And importantly for the EPA’s upcoming air quality decision, there aren’t many studies published already that fall within this framework.
In a scathing article published last week in the journal Science, research director Gretchen Goldman of the Center for Science and Democracy and the Union of Concerned Scientists and Harvard biostatistician Francesca Dominici wrote that “a requirement of manipulative causation fails to recognize the full depth and robustness of existing approaches in epidemiology, statistics, and causal inference and the degree to which they deal with confounding factors.”
A separate statement by the Union of Concerned Scientists contended that if the EPA adopts Cox’s recommendation via the Chartered Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee for limiting studies to the much narrower approach, “It will be virtually impossible to prove particle pollution harms public health, despite the vast array of studies that show otherwise.”
In an email to Grist, a spokesperson for the EPA wrote that “Administrator Wheeler thanks the CASAC for all their efforts and will take all the CASAC advice under consideration.”
Vijay Limaye is a fellow at the Natural Resources Defense Council who previously worked at the EPA and helped write the Integrated Science Assessment that Cox’s committee is now scrutinizing. Limaye says the vast majority of the evidence it considers, as well as the research compiled in this week’s State of the Global Air, would be “pushed to the side” under Cox’s approach. “It would basically rob the EPA of a number of tools it’s already been using to characterize the harmful effects of air pollutants.”
The Chartered Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee will finalize its particulate matter review of the EPA’s assessment in the coming weeks.
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For years, air quality and climate change have been like star-crossed lovers — inextricably linked, but never quite finding their way to each other in environmental policy and dialogue. Well in 2018, the two finally got hot and heavy thanks to several landmark reports and climate calamities literally taking our breath away. People seem to see that it makes sense to tackle air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions together.
Especially on the local level, failing to take air quality into consideration has left some glaring holes in our climate action strategies. Take, for instance, California’s cap-and-trade system, a climate solution touted by some environmentalists. Although California managed to reduce its carbon emissions overall for the state, its carbon trading market ended up concentrating contaminants in the “fenceline” neighborhoods that were already facing the most pollution.
From a public health perspective, according to Lara Cushing, the lead author of a study on the environmental equity of carbon trading, getting the most good out of emissions reductions “means prioritizing emissions reductions from sources that also release a lot of health-damaging pollutants.”
The effect climate change has had on air quality hasn’t headlined much in the past. But that changed after this year’s blazing wildfires sent California’s greenhouse gas gains up in smoke. On top of that, record-breaking heat waves have sped up the production of ozone pollution — a trend that will likely continue thanks to global warming predictions. The behemoth 4th National Climate Assessment dedicated 27 of its more than 1,500 pages to air quality.
“Early on when we were talking about climate, the old iconic polar bear disappearing became sort of the focus,” says Janice Nolan, assistant vice president of national policy at the American Lung Association. What’s changing now, she says, is that “people are seeing that this is a human health impact.”
Even the World Health Organization got in on the air quality action in 2018, releasing a child environmental health report this October with an entire section dedicated to the benefits of cleaner air for health and the climate. “Actions to reduce air pollution will benefit child health, not only by avoiding direct effects but also by reducing emissions of certain greenhouse gases and thus mitigating climate change and its effects on health,” it read.
And last but certainly not least on the big, scary study list, the U.N.’s special climate report released this year spelled out the case for finding solutions that target both climate change and air pollution: “Focusing on pathways and policies which both improve air quality and reduce impacts of climate change can provide multiple co-benefits.”
These reports sound like a lot of sad news, but the great thing about this newfound attention to the pairing between climate action and clean air policies is that it’s super efficient, since carbon and the crap that makes it harder to breathe are often released at the same time.
The two solutions actually make each other better when they’re together. Awwww.
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The Trump administration is one step closer to dismantling a major federal energy policy aimed at improving air quality and lowering carbon emissions — just on the heels of a World Health Organization report highlighting the impact of air pollution on children’s health.
Former Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt announced last year that his agency would repeal the Obama-era Clean Power Plan (CPP), which the EPA had estimated would prevent 90,000 asthma attacks in children and save 4,500 lives each year. The plan’s replacement, the “Affordable Clean Energy Rule,” relaxes regulations for coal plants. If implemented, it could lead to 1,400 more premature deaths each year by 2030, according to EPA estimates.
Public comment on the proposed replacement plan just closed Wednesday. A dozen national medical and public health organizations — including the American Lung Association, the National Association of County and City Health Officials, and others representing physicians and nurses — submitted a joint comment urging the EPA to stick to the original Clean Power Plan. Their letter highlighted the dangers of both air pollution and climate change, which can increase the production of smog and fuel wildfires and dust storms that can also make it harder to breathe.
“The changing climate threatens the health of Americans alive now and in future generations,” they wrote. “The nation has a short window to act to reduce those threats.”
In case you’re in need of a “just how bad is it” reality check, earlier this week, the World Health Organization released a report stating 93 percent of kids under 15 are breathing air that endangers their health and development. Even in wealthy countries like the U.S., more than half of children under the age of 5 are exposed to pollution levels above the WHO’s air quality guidelines.
Kids are particularly vulnerable to air pollution because they’re short and air pollution concentrates closer to the ground, the report says. Their growing bodies and brains are more affected by toxins that can, among other health risks, affect neurodevelopment and cognitive ability.
“Air pollution is stunting our children’s brains,” Maria Neira, director of WHO’s Department of Public Health, said in a statement. But, she added, “There are many straight-forward ways to reduce emissions of dangerous pollutants.”
Which brings us back to the EPA’s proposed energy plan.
Green Latinos submitted a comment on the plan, highlighting the disproportionate burdens placed on communities of color: “One of two Latinos in the United States lives in a county that does not meet EPA’s public health air quality standard. We also know that 40 percent of Latinos live within 30 miles of a power plant, and that Latino children are 40 percent more likely to die from asthma than non-Latino white children…Carbon pollution also endangers Latinos nationwide by driving climate change. Already, we see Latinos on the frontlines of climate change, in the line of fire of extreme heat in the Southwest, extreme drought in California, and sea level rise in Florida.”
The National Mining Association, on the other hand, applauded the EPA’s repeal of Obama-era emissions regulations. “[The Clean Power Plan] is based on the misguided notion that the nation must stop using fossil fuels because these fuels are harmful to the public interest,” wrote Association President and CEO Hal Quinn.
The EPA is expected to put forward a final rule by the end of the year.
Carey Poindexter has been checking the air quality before deciding whether it’s safe to go outside for much of his life. The 19-year-old has such severe asthma and allergies, doctors predicted that he wouldn’t live past the age of 10. His symptoms are usually more serious in the spring and winter, but this year, summer has been worse. With record-breaking heatwaves and wildfires raging nearby, Poindexter spent most of his summer inside.
“It really has been pretty rough for people suffering from lung disease,” he says.
It’s been a punishing summer in California. But it’s worse for those who live in the most polluted areas, and as a result are already at heightened risk for respiratory diseases like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). By exacerbating this summer’s heat waves and wildfires, climate change is stacking health burdens on communities already breathing bad air.
On Monday, California released a Climate Change Assessment detailing the mounting risks the state faces as the planet warms. Among the report’s findings: Forests will become even more susceptible to extreme wildfires. By mid-century, heat waves could occur four to 10 times more frequently and last two weeks longer, leading to more heat-related deaths and illnesses.
And those findings spell disaster for people who are already struggling to breathe amid this summer’s climate-driven calamities. Hot temperatures cause lungs to strain as the body tries to cool itself. Heat speeds up the formation of smog. And forest fires also add pollution to the air.
“It’s just a snowball effect,” says Afif El-Hasan, a pediatrician and a national spokesperson of the American Lung Association. On top of the immediate health effects, climate change can exacerbate inequities that compound health risks, he adds.
If someone has limited resources and lives in a polluted area, “for them to open the window because they can’t afford air conditioning becomes a health dilemma,” El-Hasan points out.
Olivia Barbour is a 67-year-old resident of South Los Angeles who lives with COPD. Her home is on Imperial Highway, near the busy 110 and 105 freeways. “I don’t know if anybody else notices, but I think it’s even hotter closer to the freeways with all that traffic and smog,” she says. And she’s right — urban areas with lots of pavement and cars are hotter than surrounding areas. “I thought I could help myself by buying a portable air conditioner. However, I can’t afford to run the darn thing,” Barbour says. She found that it increased her electricity bill by $20 after using it for just one day.
The heat is also affecting her ability to work. Barbour sometimes does outreach for green grassroots groups like SCOPE or gathers signatures for political campaigns. But she says she can’t door-knock this summer because of the heat. And that in turn has made it harder for her to afford the health care she needs. “I was supposed to be taking five nebulizer treatments every day to manage my COPD,” Barbour says. “I just can’t afford it. So I stopped.”
Poindexter lives in one of the counties with the worst air pollution in the nation. This year, Riverside County ranked second for the most ozone pollution and sixth for the most year-round particle pollution.
“It’s so bad to where if you just look outside, you can see a greyish horizon,” he says.
The smog he sees is made worse by rising temperatures. Ground-level ozone, the pollutant that makes up a majority of smog, is created by a chemical reaction between pollutants released by vehicles, power plants, and refineries. Those chemical reactions speed up when it’s hot out.
What effect does increased ozone have on your lungs? “It’s kind of like giving a sunburn to the lining of your lungs,” says pediatrician El-Hasan. “It’s very irritating.”
Poindexter wasn’t just scanning the horizon for smog, but for smoke, too.
The Holy and Keller fires came pretty close to Poindexter’s home in Temecula. He and his mother decided to take a cruise to Mexico to escape the smoke.
Still, Poindexter knows he and others with lung disease can’t always get away from poor air quality. He voted for the first time this year, and he voted for clean air. “Whether it’s a proposition or an elected official, the first thing I look at is what they’re going to do for air quality,” Poindexter says.
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Perhaps you’ve seen them: Red, orange, yellow, or green bikes filling up sidewalks in cities nationwide. They’re called dockless bikeshares, and they’re the latest attempt to change urban mobility with bikes. Just find a bike, pay a dollar on your phone, and you’re off!
If they work, they could help cities fight traffic, air pollution, and climate change. But history tells us that’s easier said than done. Watch our video to find out how dockless bikeshares — if they can stay afloat — could change the way people get around town.
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In Sheridan County, farmers managed to slash irrigation by 20 percent without taking a punch in the wallet, according to a new economic analysis.
The wells in Sheridan County sip from the Ogallala Aquifer, an underground lake that stretches from South Dakota to Texas. It happens to be rapidly depleting.
“I’d rather irrigate 10 inches a year for 30 years than put on 30 inches for 10 years,” farmer Roch Meier told Kansas Agland. “I want it for my grandkids.”
Compared to neighbors who didn’t cut back, Sheridan farmers pumped up 23 percent less water. While they harvested 1.2 percent less than their neighbors, in the end, they had 4.3 percent higher profits.
Using less water, it turns out, just makes good business sense. It takes a lot of expensive electricity to lift tons of water up hundreds of feet through the ground. The farmers frequently checked soil moisture with electronic probes, as Circle of Blue reports. They obsessively watched weather forecasts to avoid irrigating before rain. Some switched from soy to sorghum, which requires less water. Some planted a little less corn.
If farmers in western Kansas sign on and cut water use just a bit more (25 to 35 percent), it might be enough to stabilize the aquifer.
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“The relationship that I had with Putin spans 18 years now,” the secretary of state said during a 60 Minutes interview with CBS’ Margaret Frank. “It was always about what I could do to be successful on behalf of my shareholders, and how Russia could succeed.” A true deal-maker.
But as U.S. secretary of state, the ex-CEO of ExxonMobil is supposed to put the United States’ interests first. That should ostensibly put some pressure on the relationship between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Tillerson, which was commemorated with a Russian friendship medal in 2013 after ExxonMobil signed deals with Rosneft, the state-owned Russian oil company.
Russia is one of the world’s top exporters of both oil and gas. As Alex Steffen and Rebecca Leber have written, the country stands to benefit from procrastinating on climate change action that would limit fossil fuel extraction.
In the 60 Minutes interview, Tillerson recounted his first meeting with the Russian president after becoming U.S secretary of state. “Same man, different hat,” is how he recalls reintroducing himself.
“What he is representing is different than what I now represent,” Tillerson elaborated. “And I said to him, ‘I now represent the American people.’”
Convincing! And now, on to the SNL skit that apparently made Tillerson laugh out loud: