WHO sets tougher regulations for air quality


Via Flickr.

Eleanor Hildebrandt | September 28, 2021

The World Health Organization set new standards for air quality guidelines for the next 15 years on Sept. 22.

The standards are set for policymakers across the world to lower pollutants that impact air quality. According to the Associated Press, more research and monitoring has cleared up previous questions regarding the impacts pollutants have on the health of human beings and animals. The United Nations health agency said 90 percent of the global population currently live in environments with at least one harmful type of pollutant.

Pollution of the air is concerning to global health advocates, as it becomes comparable to smoking tobacco. The guidelines are not legally binding, and they ask policy makers to focus on reducing the concentrations of six pollutant. The concerning pollutants include two types of particulate matter, ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and carbon monoxide.

Some of the guidelines also encourage individuals to do their part to improve air quality by changing their behaviors through reducing use of plastics and using public transportation instead of driving cars. Air pollution is decreasing in several countries and has over the past few years, especially in Europe and North America. The change of guidelines could see improvements across many other continents.

Air quality, climate bulletin highlights quality patterns, shifts


Screenshot from YouTube.

Eleanor Hildebrandt | September 7, 2021

The World Meteorological Organization published its first Air Quality and Climate Bulletin on Sept. 3, discussing where air patterns are improving and deteriorating across the globe.

The report discusses the strong connection air quality and climate change have because of the chemical species that impact both. One of the similarities is the affect the combustion of fossil fuels has on air’s breathability and on global warming. A large problem when it comes to air quality is wildfires, according to the bulletin. The report said the fire seasons expose people to “varying levels of pollutants” alongside putting millions of people at high or very high health risks as a result of being downwind from wildfires.

Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research co-director Greg Carmichael assisted in the creation of the organization’s bulletin. He serves on the editorial board for the bulletin and chairs the Environmental Pollution and Atmospheric Chemistry Scientific Steering Committee of the World Meteorological Organization, the group that inspired the report.

Iowa saw poor air quality this summer because of the wildfires in Western states. In late June, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources issued air quality alerts due to winds from the West Coast changing the air quality in some Midwestern states. The alert specifically focused on warning sensitive groups to limit their outdoor exertion within the state. According to the Des Moines Register, these alerts also signaled several towns in the state having “unhealthy” air based on the Air Quality Index. Poor air quality returned later in the summer to Iowa, as residents saw more alerts in August.

The bulletin by the World Meteorological Organization included a section on how COVID-19 and air quality have impacted one another — something that has worried some health officials in Iowa. During various lockdowns of differing degrees, international emissions of air pollutants fell drastically, improving air quality across the world. The report showed nitrogen dioxide emissions dropped nearly 70 percent as a result of COVID-19.

The World Meteorological Organization intends to continue putting out bulletins with more air quality information in the future.

EPA increases funding for air quality, environmental justice initiatives


Via Flickr.

Eleanor Hildebrandt | July 8, 2021

The Environmental Protection Agency is increasing its funding to monitor air pollution and improve air quality in low-income communities and communities of color.

On June 25, the agency announced an additional $50 million will be set aside for the department’s environmental justice initiatives. The funding comes from the American Rescue Plan, which was signed by President Joe Biden in March. The funding will be split between several projects, including environmental justice grants, expanding civil and criminal enforcement through monitoring, community assistance programs, and advancing environmental data analytics work.

Environmental justice—the promise of the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment—is a major focus for the Biden administration. People of color are more likely to die of environmental causes due to a variety of factors, including an increased likelihood of living in proximity to hazardous waste. According to a 2020 Princeton University study, low-income and African American communities are more likely to be affected by air pollution in the United States. The governmental response to air quality concerns is also disproportionate based on race, said the study, with white citizens’ complaints receiving more action and attention than people of color’s.

The funding will go to monitoring air in low-income communities, specifically looking for particles that have been linked to harmful illnesses. The agency hopes to ensure it is “adequately protecting all communities” regardless of who lives there, according to CNN.

Three Conservation Groups Intend to Sue the EPA for Failing to Enforce Pollution Rules in Poor Communities


Via Flickr

Nicole Welle | June 4, 2020

The Center for Biological Diversity issued a press release on May 28 announcing a lawsuit against the EPA for delaying the reduction of sulfur dioxide air pollution in a number of communities.

Areas of Missouri, Louisiana, Indiana, Puerto Rico and Guam were included in the lawsuit issued by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Center for Environmental Health and the Sierra Club. The cities and counties listed in the lawsuit are being exposed to dangerous levels of sulfur dioxide, an air pollutant produced by the extraction and burning of fossil fuels.

The Clean Air Act requires the EPA by law to set air quality standards, determine when and where air pollution exceeds the national limit, and ensure that plans are in place to clean up that pollution by a set deadline. In the current affected areas, the EPA has missed these deadlines by anywhere from two months to over four years.

The EPA has already determined that exposure to high levels of sulfur dioxide air pollution can lead to health problems in humans and trigger ecological harm. The people in the areas listed are currently at a higher risk of heart and lung disease, asthma and contracting COVID-19 due to constant exposure to the pollution. Sulfur dioxide pollution also contributes to acid rain and damages lakes, rivers and entire ecosystems.

Young children and the elderly are more vulnerable and at a higher risk, and the problem is made worse by the fact that the areas in the lawsuit include large minority and indigenous populations that are being disproportionately affected by COVID-19 and air pollution.

Air pollution may impact mental health, study says


Photo by AJ Nakasone on Pexels.com

Tyler Chalfant | August 27th, 2019

Air pollution may be linked to bipolar disorder and depression, according to a study recently published in PLOS Biology Journal. Researchers examined the health data of millions of patients in the United States and Denmark and found that patients exposed to poor quality air were more likely to be diagnosed with each of these conditions. 

Research conducted on dogs and rats had previously shown that air pollution can cause brain inflammation and symptoms resembling depression, and scientists say it is likely that human brains can be exposed to pollution in similar ways. 

Some critics claim that this study raises an “intriguing possibility” in linking air pollution to psychiatric disorders but fails to make a clear case. Besides bipolar disorder and depression, the study also tested for links between pollution and schizophrenia, personality disorder, epilepsy, and Parkinson’s disease, and failed to find a significant correlation. 

While potential links between pollution and mental health remain largely unexplored, the negative effects of air pollution on physical health have long been known. According to the World Health Organization, air pollution causes about 3.8 million premature deaths annually through heart disease, stroke, respiratory illnesses, and cancers. 

Air pollution has grown worse in most low and middle-income cities over the past several years as demand for power and the use of private motor vehicles have increased, putting many people at risk of long-term health problems.

EPA announces $40 million for diesel emission reductions


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Commercial trucks are a huge source of diesel emissions and a major target of the EPA DERA grant program (flickr). 

Julia Poska | December 27th, 2018

Regional, state, local and tribal agencies currently have the opportunity to clean up their air on the Environmental Protection Agency’s dollar. The EPA announced last week that it plans on awarding approximately $40 million in grants as part of the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act. 

These grants will fund projects that reduce diesel emissions from school buses, commercial vehicles, locomotives and non-road equipment and emissions exposure for local communities. The EPA is especially looking to benefit communities that currently have poor air quality and for projects that will engage locals even once the project has ended.

This program began in 2008 and has awarded funds to the Iowa Department of Transportation in the past. The state matched the 2018 DERA allocation of $275,123 with funds from the Volkswagen settlement to put over $500,000 towards cleaning Iowa’s air.

Interested agencies have until March 6 to apply. Those in EPA region 7, including Iowa, Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska can apply for projects up to $1.5 million.

Smog-producing air pollution declining more slowly


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Catalytic converters have decreased the amount of carbon monoxide emitted by cars dramatically since they were first introduced in the 1970s. (Chris Keating/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | May 1, 2018

A new study found that levels of two primary pollutants in the U.S. atmosphere have not been declining as rapidly during recent years as they once were.

Researchers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) studied satellite data and ground level measurements of two smog-forming pollutants: nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide. Levels of these air pollutants decreased dramatically following the implementation of the Clean Air Act in the 1970s. Requirements of that act pushed automakers and energy-producers to develop new technology which curbed the emissions of these two pollutants.

The study found that concentration of these two pollutants in the atmosphere decreased by seven percent each year between 2005 and 2009. However, from 2011 through 2015, the pollutants’ levels only shrunk by 1.7 percent annually.

Helen Worden is a scientist at NCAR and one of the study’s authors. She said to Phys Org, “Although our air is healthier than it used to be in the 80s and 90s, air quality in the U.S. is not progressing as quickly as we thought. The gains are starting to slow down.”

The study noted that the slower decrease in carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides was especially severe in the eastern part of the U.S. This finding dispels notions that the slower pace can be attributed to traveling air pollution from countries like China. The positive news is that the slower decline in carbon monoxide, which is primarily emitted by vehicles, is likely due to the fact that major strides have already been made to reduce vehicle emissions. In short, clean air technology related to cars may have reached a kind of plateau.

This study was funded by NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the University of Colorado Boulder, and the National Science Foundation. The full journal article can be found in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Scientists question EPA’s rollback of hazardous pollution regulation


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It is estimated that 9 of the 12 major sources of pollution in Iowa’s third congressional district will be reclassified under the EPA’s latest rollback. (Bill Dickinson/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | April 26, 2018

Scientists are concerned about the human and environmental health impacts of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recent decision to loosen regulations on toxic air pollutants.

The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 (CAAA) require major sources of hazardous air pollutants (HAP), or those pollutants suspected or known to cause cancer or other serious health effects, to use evidence-based pollution-control technologies to keep pollution below federal limits. These evidence-based pollution control technologies are also known as maximum achievable control technologies (MACT). Major sources are defined by the EPA as those facilities that emit more than 10 tons of any one HAP per year or more than 25 tons of a combination of HAP per year. Since then, the EPA has enforced the “once in, always in” policy, meaning that those sources that were regulated by the administration as “major sources,” would always be regulated by the administration under that classification. Until now.

In late January, Scott Pruitt’s EPA rolled back the “once in, always in” policy, thereby allowing major sources to become reclassified as “area source” polluters if they can show that they are emitting toxic air pollutants below the program’s threshold. If these sources are successfully reclassified, they will not be required to use MACT, which will likely make their emission reduction efforts less successful. To boot, hazardous air pollutants regulated by MACT measures include formaldehyde, chlorine and hydrochloric acid, none of which are safe for human inhalation, even in very small amounts.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, an independent research organization, created an interactive map to help U.S. citizens predict which parts of the country are most likely to be adversely impacted by the policy change. Scientists estimate that a minimum of 21 states will see more hazardous air pollution following the change. Low-income areas and communities of color are likely to suffer the most as a result. Their research predicts that 35 out of 41 facilities in Chicago could increase HAP emissions. Health effects associated with HAP emissions include cancer and respiratory illness, among others.

Gretchen Goldman is research director of the Center for Science and Democracy with the Union of Concerned Scientists. She made a statement on the organization’s webpage, “The EPA’s political leadership are ditching a successful policy and exposing more Americans to hazardous pollution.”

Users can view the likelihood that this policy change will affect air quality in their region using the interactive map provided here.

German court gives cities authority to ban diesel vehicles


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Munich is one of the German cities that routinely exceeds European Union NOx emission limits. (Vladimer Shioshvili/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | March 1, 2017

Germany’s federal court ruled on Tuesday that cities can ban diesel vehicles in order to lower air pollution.

Environmental Action Germany has been filing lawsuits against cities for years to encourage municipalities to implement policies that curb air pollution. German government statistics reveal that some 6,000 people die each year from nitrogen oxide pollution, 60 percent of which comes from vehicles on the road. Diesel engines in particular spew more NOx than gasoline engines and are more popular in Europe.

The ruling does not require communities to ban diesel driving, rather it grants them the legal authority to do so if air pollution in their city remains above the European Union limit for NOx in the air. Seventy German cities surpassed that threshold at least once last year.

Banning diesel vehicles would have negative implications for the country’s automotive industry. Since the ruling, the German government has proposed some measures to decrease pollution and avoid the ban, which include providing free public transportation and refitting existing diesel vehicles to meet clean air standards. However, it is unclear how the government would pay for such measures.

Germany is merely the latest country making a move away from diesel engines. Paris, Madrid, Mexico City and Athens have policies in place to ban diesel vehicles from city centers before 2025.

Simple way to recycle methane discovered


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Methane flaring from a hydraulic fracking well in Pennsylvania. (WCN/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | February 9, 2018

Scientists have recently discovered a way to simply convert excess methane into the building blocks for plastics, agrochemicals and pharmaceuticals.

A study funded by the Department of Energy by researchers at the University of Southern California has identified a one-step chemical process to change methane into basic chemicals ethylene and propylene. Methane is known to be 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide, especially in terms of short-term greenhouse gas effects. The gas’ sources include hydraulic fracking wells, organic matter breaking down in landfills or large livestock operations.

The U.S. produces more methane than almost any other country, but the new research presents an opportunity to trap and use the gas. Currently, methane must be shipped via large pipelines from release points to processing areas in order to be converted into anything useful. The study’s authors point out that this practice is cost-prohibitive for many producers, but their research offers a solution. The one-step process means that methane can be captured on-site and transformed into ethylene and propylene without costly transportation.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, who sued the agency several times before becoming its leader, has spoken about the potency of methane as a greenhouse gas in recent public addresses. He claims the agency will work to address the issue, but government spending plans say otherwise. A 2019 federal budget plan proposes a 72 percent funding cut for the Department of Energy renewable energy and energy efficiency program, the very same program that funded this study.