The Minamata Convention—a global agreement to tackle mercury—will enter into force on Aug 16, 2017, as the required 50th of the 128 signatory countries recently ratified the treaty, marking a long-awaited moment for the advancement of public health. However, while this achievement is celebrated, questions about whether governments are prepared to tackle complex issues surrounding implementation of the Convention remain rife. The Trump Administration has been actively working to revoke a host of environmental and health regulations, including restrictions on mercury discharges from coal-fired power plants, despite legal challenges by civil society groups. Meanwhile, in some southern regions of the globe, new mercury mining is intensifying, further undermining this treaty’s aims. Although some policy progress has been made for controlling mercury over the past decade, the emerging politics of deregulation and non-regulation pose serious threats to public health.
Years of intergovernmental negotiation went into the Minamata Convention, which aims to curb global mercury trade, use, and pollution, responding to abundant evidence on health effects of mercury. The convention includes restrictions on mercury mining to supply mercury for amalgamation in artisanal and small-scale gold mining, a leading source of mercury pollution. However, new mercury mining activities in Asia and Latin America have led to inexpensive mercury supplies and increased mercury use in gold extraction. In Mexico, so-called informal mercury mining increased by ten times between 2014 and 2016. In mining areas across Indonesia, cheap mercury has led to severe exposures, reportedly causing birth defects and other detrimental health effects, with mercury in water and sediment in artisanal and small-scale gold mining sites stated to be 600–3000 times the WHO standard.5 Small-scale miners associations worldwide have argued that unless their right to a livelihood is legally recognised and supported, efforts to curb mercury use will fail, as socioeconomic drivers of mercury use have been under-addressed to date. Advocacies of marginalised groups in small-scale mining communities often receive little attention in policy formulation and implementation agendas—a problem plaguing the Minamata Convention Nation Action Plans in many countries.
What needs to be done to achieve the health benefits that the Minamata Convention was designed to accomplish? Diverse economic inequities and power dynamics fuel mercury exposure; diverse modes of resistance are thus needed. The Trump Administration must be stopped from revoking mercury regulations. The public health community also should pressure governments everywhere to heed marginalised voices, firmly speak out against underlying sociopolitical processes that fuel mercury threats, and build solidarities with affected groups.
Source: [The Lancet]
For the first time since continuous monitoring began in 2006, Hastings has experienced an exceedance free month of June!
Hawke’s Bay Regional Council (HBRC) climate and air scientist Dr Kathleen Kozyniak said what used to take just one still frosty day to get exceedance now took two. “There is an overall improving trend and health-wise, any winter month without an exceedance is a win for Napier and Hastings residents.”
Dr Kozyniak relies on technical equipment based at Marewa Park and St John’s College to measure the National Environmental Standard for particulate matter (PM10). An exceedance is any reading above 50 micrograms per cubic metre averaged over 24 hours. “The weather itself may have played a part, but I think people’s efforts to adopt clean forms of heat are reaping benefits. The aim is to have no more than one exceedance per year by 2020. If we continue to decrease our emissions we should make it.”
Before the council’s HeatSmart programme began in 2009, there were a high number of annual exceedances, particularly in Hastings and to a lesser degree in Napier. HeatSmart was set up to improve air quality in Hawke’s Bay by reducing air pollution from home wood burners and fires due to the adverse effects it has on people’s health.
Council’s client services manager Mark Heaney, who oversees the HeatSmart programme, said since HeatSmart started, more than 9500 fireplaces had been upgraded or replaced along with insulation retrofits and upgrades in many homes. “In spite of the inversion layer over both cities on cold, still winter nights, the number of exceedances each year has generally been tracking down,” Mr Heaney said.
Dr Kozyniak wanted to remind people to continue to be mindful when using a fire and if it looked smoky outside then people should look to improve it.
[Source: NZ Herald, 11 July 2017]
Along mile after mile of Britain’s rural highways, especially the closer you get to London, every spring you will see masses of cow parsley. Many people now think of as an attractive addition to the landscape. It’s a pity they do, for the point about the syndrome is this: there’s lots of cow parsley, sure. But what you often won’t find is the lovely variety of wildflowers that 30 to 40 years ago decorated these same roadside verges. The cow parsley is crowding out wild flowers largely because of nitrogen from vehicle exhaust, especially diesel ones, which enriches the soil; and richer soil means fewer different species of plant can grow (whereas poor soil allows a wide variety of wild plants to coexist). It’s a striking example of how air pollution from motor vehicles is impacting on the natural world.
We know only too well how it impacts on us. This same air pollution causes 40,000 premature deaths in Britain every year and is now right at the top of a list of environmental health concerns. Vehicle emissions are breaking EU air quality laws, and the government has had to be ordered by the supreme court to find an effective strategy.
But what is not nearly so well appreciated is the way in which air pollution is now playing havoc with the natural environment too, principally through the atmospheric deposition of nitrogen compounds and perhaps also through particulates, the microscopic soot particles that diesel engines emit. It is the nitrogen that is doing the most obvious damage, enriching the soil which means only certain grass species and others such as stinging nettles, brambles and cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris, it’s scientific name), will be able to out-compete everything else.
And there is growing evidence that particulate pollution is behind the sudden disappearance of house sparrows from central London; whether it was connected to the widespread uptake of diesel vehicles remains to be investigated.
[Source: The Guardian, 1 June 2017]
Louise will be taking part in the Step Up Sky Tower Stair Challenge on Friday 11 August 2017 (along with her Auckland Seido Karate Black Belt team) to raise funds and awareness for Leukaemia & Blood Cancer New Zealand. That means racing up the 1,103 steps of the Sky Tower (the tallest structure in the southern hemisphere)!
Every day, six children and adults in New Zealand are diagnosed with a blood cancer like leukaemia, lymphoma and myeloma. Leukaemia & Blood Cancer New Zealand is the national charity dedicated to supporting patients and their families, this support can last months or even years.
Leukaemia & Blood Cancer New Zealand receives no government funding, so please sponsor Louise and help support this great cause.
It’s simple (and secure) – follow the link below and click on the “donate now” button in the top right of the page.
Good luck Lou!
Children are at risk of dangerous levels of air pollution in cars because exposure to toxic air is often far higher inside than outside vehicles. Prof Sir David King, a former UK Government chief scientific adviser, writing for the Guardian, says walking or cycling to school would be much better for children’s health. The warning comes as the UK government faces a third legal defeat for failing to tackle the country’s illegal levels of air pollution. Air pollution is known to damage children’s developing lungs but recent research also indicates it harms children’s ability to learn at school and may damage their DNA.
“Children sitting in the backseat of vehicles are likely to be exposed to dangerous levels [of air pollution],” said King. “You may be driving a cleaner vehicle but your children are sitting in a box collecting toxic gases from all the vehicles around you.” King, who now advises the British Lung Foundation says “It’s been shown that the health benefits of walking and cycling far outweigh the costs of breathing in pollution. If more drivers knew the damage they could be doing to their children, I think they’d think twice about getting in the car.”
A range of experiments, some as far back as 2001, have shown that drivers inside vehicles are exposed to far higher levels of air pollution than those walking or cycling along the same urban routes. Prof Stephen Holgate, an asthma expert at Southampton University and chair of the Royal College of Physicians working party on air pollution, said there was enough evidence to tell parents that walking and cycling exposes their children to less air pollution than driving and increase physical exercise. Children are more vulnerable than adults, because air pollution can stunt the growing of their lungs and it increases the risk of sensitisation which can lead to asthma and other respiratory conditions. “There are multiple benefits to be gained. But parents are confused at the moment because they think there is less pollution in cars than outside, which is not the case.”
Recent research has added to the concern about the impact of air pollution on children, beyond the direct harm to their lungs. A study in Barcelona showed that air pollution reduces the ability of children to concentrate and slows their reaction times. A smaller study, in California, showed higher levels of traffic-related air pollution correlated with increased DNA damage in children.”
The environmental law firm ClientEarth has defeated the ministers twice in the courts over the adequacy of government air quality plans. Ministers’ latest proposals were published on 5 May but were widely condemned as inadequate, and ClientEarth is now suing the UK government a third time.
“Air pollution hasn’t been taken seriously,” said Holgate. “There is a very strange situation where the government has to make laws by being taken to court repeatedly. In my view it is really quite appalling that we haven’t started to deal with this properly and put children’s and adults’ health first.”
[Source: The Guardian, 12 June 2017]
The Environmental Defense Fund and the University of Texas in Austin (UT Austin) along with Google Earth Outreach deployed two Google Street View mapping cars equipped with air quality sensors to measure and chart air pollution in Oakland, California and provide a detailed picture of where people are at greatest risk of breathing unhealthy air at 30 metre intervals.
Over the course of the year-long project, the cars made three million unique measurements while driving more than 22,530 kilometres, with each street being sampled an average of 30 times, creating one of the largest, most spatially precise datasets of mobile air pollution measurements ever assembled.
Conventional assessments of urban pollution rely on data from a relative handful of fixed air quality monitors, emission inventories and computer models to characterize air pollution in a city. There are just three stationary, regulatory-grade air quality monitors which measure urban background pollution levels in Oakland. However, uncertainties remain about the variation in pollution levels in the areas between the monitors, making it difficult to know precisely where dirty air comes from or who is affected.
“The new mobile technology allows us to measure air pollution levels where people actually breathe the air, at street level,” said Joshua Apte, assistant professor at UT Austin, and lead author of the study. “By allowing us to understand how air pollution varies between and even within city blocks, this technique will help policymakers and the public make smarter choices about how to reduce pollution and improve public health.”
[Source: Adam Frost, Traffic Technology Today, 8 June 2017]
The Lancet takes on non-communicable diseases
The global health community does not spend much time on branding, which perhaps explains why existing classifications for the three largest groups of diseases are both outdated and counterproductive. The first Global Burden of Disease study1 described infectious diseases, non-communicable diseases (NCDs), and injuries.
This grouping reflected a predominantly infectious disease burden in low-income and middle-income countries, which has since tilted towards NCDs. A name that is a longwinded non-definition, and that only tells us what this group of diseases is not, is not befitting of a group of diseases that now constitute the world’s largest killer.
After all, “anything that begins with ‘non’ may be considered a ‘non-issue’ or a ‘non-starter’”.2 Evidence is mounting that some NCDs are partly or wholly communicable. They can be spread through social networks,3 viruses such as hepatitis and human papillomavirus, the built environment,4 cultural and economic conditions, food deserts (ie, areas short on fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthy foods),5 and intergenerational transmission (ie, diabetes and obesity). Furthermore, the present misnomer implies that the causes are individual rather than societal.
This implication is simply not the case: NCDs have largely sociogenetic antecedents, and efforts focused on individual behaviour have little overall effect if the social and policy environments do not change in parallel.
After initiating a global debate on the subject, Luke Allen (Nuffield Department of Primary Health Care Sciences, University of Oxford, UK) and Andrea Feigl (Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs, Health Division, OECD, Paris, France) have put forward a new term:
“socially transmitted conditions” (STCs)
This label stresses the anthropogenic and socially contagious nature of the diseases: STCs are driven by urbanisation, industrialisation, and poverty, the availability of tobacco, alcohol, and processed foods, and physical inactivity. STCs also share a common set of solutions focused on addressing the complex and often unjust structure of society.
It is important not to absolve individuals of all responsibility for their own health and lifestyle choices, while highlighting the fact that our changing social environment strongly influences the set of choices available. The term “socially transmitted” shifts the implied locus of action upstream. The term also provides clarity by describing the core uniting characteristic of the disease group.
Virtually all diseases are influenced by social factors to some degree, and it is stressed that STCs are distinguished by the common constellation of social drivers that they share. The authors note that congenital and degenerative conditions are imperfectly captured by the new name. Despite these limitations, the preface “socially transmitted” is vastly more transparent, accurate, and tractable than “non-communicable”. Importantly, it also challenges the persisting misconception that individual greed and sloth are driving the global epidemiological transition.
- Murray, CJ, Lopez, AD, and Jamison, DT. The global burden of disease in 1990: summary results, sensitivity analysis and future directions. Bull World Health Organ. 1994; 72: 495–509
- Sridhar, D, Morrison, JS, and Piot, P. Getting the politics right for the September 2011 UN High-Level Meeting on Noncommunicable Diseases. Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, DC; 2011
- Christakis, NA and Fowler, JH. Social contagion theory: examining dynamic social networks and human behavior. Stat Med. 2013; 32: 556–577
- Hipp, JA and Chalise, N. Spatial analysis and correlates of county-level diabetes prevalence, 2009–2010. Prev Chronic Dis. 2015; 12: E08
- Ferdinand, AO, Sen, B, Rahurkar, S, Engler, S, and Menachemi, N. The relationship between built environments and physical activity: a systematic review. Am J Public Health. 2012; 102: e7–13
Louise’s review of New Zealand air quality case law, “What Stinks and Why” was published in the April Journal of the Resource Management Law Association. A full copy of her paper is available here:
Louise previously presented this paper at the Environmental Compliance conference, November 2017 where it was billed as a presentation to restore your faith in New Zealand’s legal system. A copy of that presentation is available here:
New Zealand Air Quality Case Law Review 2016: What stinks and why
Louise Wickham, Emission Impossible
Exposure to ambient air pollution increases morbidity and mortality, and is a leading contributor to global disease burden. This study explored spatial and temporal trends in mortality and burden of disease attributable to ambient air pollution from 1990 to 2015 at global, regional, and country levels.
The study found that ambient PM2·5 was the fifth-ranking mortality risk factor in 2015.
Exposure to PM2·5 in 2015 caused 4·2 million deaths (95% uncertainty interval (UI) 3.7-4.8 million), representing 7·6% of total global deaths, 59% of these in east and south Asia. This was a substantial increase from an estimated 3·5 million deaths attributable to exposure to ambient PM2.5 in 1990 (95% UI 3.0-4.0 million). The increase is due to population ageing, changes in non-communicable disease rates, and increasing air pollution in low-income and middle-income countries.
[Source: The Lancet, 10 April 2017]
The first external review draft of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) Integrated Science Assessment for Oxides of Nitrogen, Oxides of Sulfur and Particulate Matter – Ecological Criteria is now public.
This integrated science assessment provides a comprehensive evaluation and synthesis of the most policy-relevant science aimed at characterising the ecological effects caused by these criteria pollutants. These criteria pollutants are reviewed here together because they all contribute to nitrogen (N) and sulfur (S) deposition, which causes substantial ecological effects.
Thus, this integrated science assessment serves as the scientific foundation for the review of the ecological effects associated with the secondary (welfare-based, US) national ambient air quality standards for oxides of nitrogen, oxides of sulfur, and particulate matter. The health effects of these criteria pollutants are considered in separate assessments as part of the review of the primary (health-based) national ambient air quality standards for oxides of nitrogen (US EPA, 2016b) oxides of sulfur (US EPA, 2016a), and particulate matter (US EPA, 2009a).
It includes scientific research from atmospheric sciences, exposure and deposition, biogeochemistry, hydrology, soil science, marine science, plant physiology, animal physiology, and ecology conducted at multiple scales (e.g., population, community, ecosystem, landscape levels).