Archive for January, 2020
From a nondescript industrial building in Lower Hutt, a small company is charting new waters in the world of sustainable marine transport.
Inside the warehouse, the team from Wellington Electric Boat Building Company sand and prepare a 19 metre long hull that is fresh out of a mould while they await the arrival of its twin at Seaview Marina.
The catamaran, being built for the capital’s East by West Ferries, is on track to become what is believed to be the first fully-electric passenger ferry in the Southern Hemisphere.
Rated to carry 135 passengers, it is hoped the vessel will be cruising across Wellington Harbour with commuters and day trippers by mid-2020.
“I think it’s the future of boat building in New Zealand,” said Wellington Electric managing director Fraser Foote ,who has had his hand in everything from harbour ferries to America’s Cup racers during his decades in the boat building industry.
Electric transport technology is changing rapidly and it is logical for New Zealand to attach an industry to its largely sustainable energy supply, he said. “Wellington will have the turbine on the hill and electric ferries in the harbour.”
The growing market for electric vehicles worldwide showed there was an increasing appetite for sustainable transport and there was no reason the marine industry should be left out, he said.
Wanting a new vessel for his fleet East by West director Jeremy Ward said he approached Foote about building a new ferry after he discovered there were no companies in New Zealand or Australia building an electric craft that fit what his company needed. East by West is now a majority stakeholder in Wellington Electric and its first customer.
“I said ‘bugger it we’ll do it ourselves’.”
He was after a boat that was environmentally-friendly and that didn’t rely on non-renewable energy sources.
“Fossil fuels aren’t going to last forever.”
The electric motors to be used in the ferry generated no emissions. By comparison, East by West’s two other diesel ferries used about 250,000 litres of fuel a year between them.
Foote said an electric ferry the size of the one being produced for East by West cost in excess of $4 million, which was more than an equivalent-sized diesel boat.
Savings would be made over time through cheaper running costs. Electric motors required less maintenance than diesel ones and the cost of charging the batteries was up to 60 per cent cheaper than filling up with diesel.
The ferry would start each day on a full battery and would need a 15 minute charge to top it up between return trips.
Foote said the process of designing an electric boat was no different to designing a traditional diesel vessel, however because electric ferry building was still in its infancy, there there was a lot of research and development being done to get the new designs right.
One of the challenges was to combine the electric motors with a composite hull, which had different properties to a conventional steel hull, he said.
Inspiration has being taken from a larger Norwegian vessel Future of the Fjords. The boat, launched last year, is also a composite hulled catamaran.
With over a dozen expressions of interest Foote and Ward were confident an industry could be based around electric boat building in Lower Hutt. The company now employs nine full-time staff.
MOORESVILLE, N.C. — The mystery began more than two years ago with a pea-size lump behind the left ear of Susan Wind’s oldest daughter, Taylor, then 16.
A doctor told them it was “nothing to worry about,” likely triggered by teenage hormones. But Wind was unconvinced, and eventually, through testing, Taylor was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer, which is less common in children and would require surgery.
The journey to restore Taylor’s health would lead to Wind uncovering an anomaly lurking in Mooresville, a fast-growing lakeside suburb of Charlotte: On Wind’s street alone, three people had thyroid cancer, while two others had thyroid tumours, she learned.
As she began tracking case after case in her community, Wind believed that what she was seeing was no coincidence, and that something in the environment could be to blame.
Wind raised $110,000 to get a team of scientists from Duke University in Durham to test the groundwater, soil and air, and collect information from residents in the hope of identifying a possible connection. The full report is still months away, but what researchers find could provide a breakthrough for what’s happening here.
In 2018, as part of an analysis of the state’s cancer registry data, the Iredell County Health Department confirmed that two ZIP codes in the Mooresville area, including one where the Wind family lived, had 110 observed cases of papillary thyroid cancer from 2012 to 2016 — more than double the number expected.
“I want to know why everyone is getting cancer, and what do we all have in common,” Wind, 46, said.
Mooresville isn’t the only community in which residents unnerved by seemingly unusual cancer rates are struggling to find answers. About 1,000 suspected cancer clusters — places in which a higher than normal type of cancer is concentrated — are reported to state health departments each year, according to the American Cancer Society. But studying them is challenging, with results often inconclusive, dubious or failing to meet the right criteria to satisfy various health agencies.
About 13 percent of more than 560 suspected cancer clusters examined in the United States from 1990 to 2011 were considered “confirmed” in a 2012 study by Emory University epidemiologists.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gathered public input last summer for how health departments can best respond to possible cancer clusters. (Updated guidelines are expected to be released in 2021.)
Those who responded to the CDC expressed an urgency to investigate potential cancer clusters that have not yet been confirmed. Among them were an Indiana woman whose 13-year-old was diagnosed with a brain tumour along with three other children within a one-block radius; a New York woman being screened for cancer and whose friend and dog a few blocks away had been diagnosed; and another commenter who did not give a location but said they regretted moving to a place that they later learned was home to a potential cancer cluster.
Andrew Olshan, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina who co-authored recommendations last July on how to study the growing thyroid cancer rate in North Carolina, said requests should be scrutinised.
“It’s extremely challenging for the state and the CDC and others to really go through this and say, ‘Aha, we’ve found the cause of these cancer cases,'” Olshan said. “But they deserve answers on the off chance we can learn more.”
The problem with cancer clusters
The federal government defines clusters as a “greater-than-expected number of cancer cases that occurs within a group of people in a geographic area over a period of time.”
Determining whether it’s mere chance or of pressing public concern can be a tall order for health officials.
Still, health experts say, there are general parameters: All of the cases in a cancer cluster must be the same type, the cancer must be limited to a specific area — for instance, a ZIP code or a workplace — and the diagnoses must have been confirmed within a given period. This accounts for the fact that some cancers can take years or decades to develop.
Health officials review cancer rates to see if the number is in fact higher than what is normally reported in that area. In addition, they note the demographics of the patients; that way they can find anomalies, like children diagnosed with a cancer that typically affects adults.
Studies however, can cost millions of dollars, according to Dan Fagin, the director of the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University.
“Health departments don’t want to investigate because they’re expensive and they often have ambiguous results and they can make people really upset,” Fagin said.
The first two cancer cluster investigations in the United States to determine an association between high rates of cancer and environmental pollution were in a Boston suburb in 1984 where there was an outbreak of childhood leukaemia, and in Toms River, New Jersey, where the rate of childhood brain and central nervous system cancers was three times higher than expected.
In his 2013 book, “Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation,” Fagin reported that 90 children, including some as young as 6 months old, were diagnosed with cancer in the town from 1979 to 1995.
A five-year, $10 million epidemiological study concluded the cancer was related to environmental pollution, but there was not enough evidence for officials to conclusively say that toxic chemicals from two nearby waste dumps had tainted the water supply to a level that compromised the community’s health. But in 2002, the companies associated with the pollution, without acknowledging liability, settled in court with dozens of families.
“You could think of Toms River as a fluke, but I think the most likely explanation is that Toms River is a warning,” Fagin said. “Cluster investigations are like the fire marshal that comes into the house after it’s already burned down. What we really need are fire inspectors who look for problems before they do their damage.”
“Trevor’s Law,” which then-President Barack Obama signed in 2016, requires the federal government to track cancer clusters around the nation. President Donald Trump has approved the release of $1 million for the CDC to update its guidelines for how to conduct future investigations, although that’s still another year away from completion.
Trevor Schaefer, an Idaho native who inspired the law after surviving childhood brain cancer, is frustrated with how slow progress has been.
“In the interim, a lot of children and adults have and will continue to get diagnosed with cancer and many will not survive,” he said, “and those that do will forever face chronic health challenges.”
[Source: NBC News] (Abridged)
On a December day in Lahore, Pakistan’s second-biggest city, the smog concealed tall buildings. Men on motorbikes seemed to push through it as they rode. It reeked of diesel and charcoal, compelling the Nadim family to go to the hospital.
“I can’t breathe,” said Mohammad Nadim, 34. He gestured to his wife, Sonia. “My wife can’t breathe.” She held their 3-month-old daughter Aisha, who pushed out wet, heavy coughs. “But we are here for our children.”
Air pollution is a major public health problem across Pakistan, where an estimated 128,000 people die annually from air pollution-related illnesses, according to the Global Alliance on Health and Pollution.
But researchers say the government has downplayed the severity of the problem for years, produced unreliable data and sought to pass blame to neighboring India. Indeed, the environmental protection department of Punjab, the province surrounding Lahore, has not updated its air quality level for several weeks on its website, reporting it at 166 – a level of airborne fine particulate matter that the U.S. EPA considers to be “unhealthy” but which the Pakistani government says is “satisfactory.”
In response, a growing wave of clean-air activists — including a group called the “Scary Moms,” environmental lawyers, tech entrepreneurs and even foreign embassies — is using new sources of pollution data to pressure the government to take action. And it might be working — the government is set to roll out a new series of policies aimed at improving air quality.
The movement began with a Pakistani engineer, Abid Omar, who in 2017 began crowd-sourcing data from citizen-owned air quality monitors and uploading the information on Twitter. Omar, who used to live in Beijing, said he was inspired by seeing how citizen activism helped pressure the Chinese government to tackle air pollution.
“We are utilizing data coming out of this network to spread the message about how severe the air pollution is, which we did not know until we had these monitors,” Omar says. “Just a very simple act has this huge impact.”
Omar’s initiative was followed by the U.S. State Department, which erected monitors in the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad and at its consulates — for U.S. citizens living in Pakistan to have access to data about air pollution. Those figures are also regularly tweeted out. They generally correlate with the citizen-sourced data.
“For the first time, people got numbers and realized how bad it was,” said Rafay Alam, an environmental lawyer, referring to the data shared by Omar’s initiative and the State Department. “And no surprise, Lahore is near the top of the list of the most polluted cities in the world.”
Those data points were compiled by AirVisual, a crowd-sourced online air quality monitor that compares countries around the world. On the same day the Nadim family went to the hospital, when the Punjab government was assuring residents that the air quality was “satisfactory,” citizen-sourced data from AirVisual reported it as “hazardous.”
Lahore’s air quality has deteriorated over the past decade, a period during which an estimated 70% of its trees were felled to make way for more residents. Their vehicles still run predominantly on a type of highly polluting sulphur-laden gas that contributes some 40% of the air pollution in Lahore and the surrounding province of the Punjab, according to a 2019 report by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization.
Industries mushrooming around Lahore, including those that burn tires to power their factory units, contribute another 25%. Farmers who seasonally burn their fields to prepare for more planting, as well as thousands of brick kilns in the city’s outskirts, add to the problem.
The activist movement really took off in November, says Alam.
“A bunch of environmental activists sat down and decided, because we’d seen the smog season in 2016, ’17 and ’18, that we were going to be more coordinated about how we were going to deal with it,” he says.
Armed with new sources of data over the past several years, lawyers such as Alam have brought forward several cases to the Lahore High Court to demand clean air — including one on Nov. 4 brought by Alam on behalf of his daughter and other children. It accused the government of underreporting the severity of air pollution.
Amnesty International issued an unprecedented call on Nov. 22, asking supporters to write to the Pakistani government to protest the air quality. The group argued that the human rights of every person in Lahore were at risk.
“It’s the first time this crisis is being personalized as a human rights crisis,” said Rimmel Mohydin, Pakistan campaigner for Amnesty International.
Despite the pollution in Lahore, residents still pack rooftop cafes. Maryam Saeed, 30, was visiting one, and gestured to the people around her.
“They don’t see it anymore,” she says.
Saeed, along with three other Pakistani entrepreneurs, co-founded a company to build a 25-foot, $20,000, solar-powered “smog tower” that will filter clean air for about 90,000 residents in its vicinity. Saeed says she hopes the project can be scaled up but acknowledged smog towers are a short-term solution.
“Even 10 smog towers cannot solve the entire problem,” she says. “We need to change our consumption.”
Then there are the Scary Moms.
Ayesha Nasir, 35, leads this network of mothers in Lahore. They hope to raise awareness about how to keep children safe from smog and to reduce pollution by persuading parents to stop driving their kids to school and put them on school buses instead. (Nasir said the name, ScaryAmmi, or Scary Moms, was a nod to the cliché of demanding South Asian mothers.)
Nasir turned to activism after reaching the limits of what she could do to protect her four children from the air that hurt their throats, made them dizzy, inflamed their eyes and gave them headaches.
She was advocating busing because “43% of the reason we have smog in Punjab is transport,” Nasir says, referring to a February report by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization that analyzed air pollution in the Punjab. Nasir sees the school run as a major factor.
“There are schools in Lahore where, on average, 2,000 cars go there in the morning,” she says.
Busing across Lahore fell out of favor as nearly two decades of militant attacks wreaked havoc across Pakistan. Chaperoning children became a protective instinct. Now, to assuage parents, Nasir said they were helping transport companies develop services that worried parents needed, like live dashcams, tracking locators and even a bus nanny.
On a cold December day, the Scary Moms hustled to get their point across at a private school, beginning with educating kids. “Today we need to fight the enemy that is smog,” Nasir announced to rows of teenagers attending a special smog workshop with their parents — it was the 43rd such session since November.
She waved to a U.N.-issued video showing the effects of particulate matter that forms air pollution. The particles can be absorbed into the body, affecting brain development, growth and respiratory illnesses.
“Please when the air pollution is high, try to stay inside your home and try to wear a mask when you have to go outside,” she says.
Parents seemed to agree with the notion, including Zahida Parveen, 38, who spent an hour in a rickshaw accompanying her two daughters to school.
“We are suffering. Me and my girls are asthmatic,” Parveen says. If the school could offer safe transport, “then we can go for it.”
The Scary Moms have had some results. The Punjab education minister, Murad Raas, who oversees 53,000 schools, is backing the mothers and said one upscale school would pilot smart buses in March. The aim was to get “50 to 100 schools” to sign on.
“In the next few months, I’m hoping we can do this,” Raas told NPR.
There are now signs that the current government may be reckoning with the problem. In late November, it unveiled a raft of policies to curb air pollution, says Malik Amin Aslam, adviser to the prime minister on climate change.
The new initiatives included banning the import of low-quality fuel by January. In addition, local refineries would have three years to upgrade their equipment to process high quality fuel. And brick kilns have until September to install emission-reducing technology.
Alam, the lawyer, and other activists say the prime minister’s initiatives were a good sign.
“I think sanity has prevailed,” Alam said. But he said he was concerned that the air pollution problem would become invisible after the heavy winter smog lifts after February. Then politicians would lose interest in wrestling powerful industries that profit from the status quo.
Once “you can’t see the poor air quality,” he says, “other political issues can sort of take over.”
[Source: NPR Goats and Soda] (Abridged)
It’s been sobering to see the smoke from the Australian bushfires travel so far and have such an impact in New Zealand. To date the real time air quality monitoring data suggests there have been two exceedances of the national environmental standard for PM10 that can be attributed to the Australian bushfires more than 2,000 km away. These occurred on 6 December 2019 in the North Island and 7 December 2020 at the top of the South Island.
More recently the Australian bushfire smoke has caused dramatic orange haze (South Island 1 January 2020) and a darkening of the skies (Auckland 5 January 2020). Surprisingly, these events were not associated by significant increases in daily PM10, with maximum concentrations typically less than 30 µg/m3 as a 24-hour average. We hypothesise that the smoke from the Australian bushfires that has been transported this far is primarily ultrafine particulate matter (i.e. < 0.1 micrometres in diameter), which is why despite being so highly visual, it is not registering as significant on a mass basis.
With respect to the health effects of ultrafine particulate, the World Health Organisation notes (WHO, 2013):
There is increasing, though as yet limited, epidemiological evidence on the association between short-term exposures to ultrafine (smaller than 0.1 µm) particles and cardiorespiratory health, as well as the health of the central nervous system. Clinical and toxicological studies have shown that ultrafine particles (in part) act through mechanisms not shared with larger particles that dominate mass-based metrics, such as PM2.5 or PM10.
Social media is currently lighting up with people reporting exacerbated asthma and respiratory issues which may, or may not, be caused by the Australian bushfire smoke. However, any breathing difficulties should be taken seriously. If in doubt – refer to your GP.
The Ministry of Health has just posted a public health update on their website. Real-time particulate monitoring data (thanks to the superb work undertaken by regional councils throughout New Zealand) is available here.
And spare a thought for our Australian kin.
[Photo credit: Himawari satellite]
 WHO, (2013). Review of evidence on health aspects of air pollution – REVIHAAP Project. Technical Report. Regional Office for Europe. Copenhagen. Denmark.