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Archive for March, 2022

White House turns to air quality in latest effort to thwart coronavirus

It is pushing strategies, such as better air filters in schools and businesses, to help curb the spread of the virus

[Hurry up New Zealand]

By Dan Diamond

30 March 2022

The White House is pivoting to emphasize that poorly ventilated indoor air poses the biggest risk for coronavirus infections,urging schools, businesses and homeowners to take steps to boost air quality — a move scientists say is long overdue and will help stave off future outbreaks.

“Let’s Clear the Air on COVID,” a virtual event hosted Tuesday by the White House science office, came after President Biden’s coronavirus response team and other leaders have elevated warnings that airborne transmission is the primary conduit of coronavirus infections, a reversal of earlier federal guidance.

“The most common way COVID-19 is transmitted from one person to another is through tiny airborne particles of the virus hanging in indoor air for minutes or hours after an infected person has been there,” Alondra Nelson, head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, wrote in a blog post last week. “While there are various strategies for avoiding breathing that air — from remote work to masking — we can and should talk more about how to make indoor environments safer by filtering or cleaning air.”

The Biden administration’s turn toward improving ventilation comes as experts focus on new ways of managing a pandemic that continues to challenge global leaders more thantwo years after the virus first emerged. Its recommendations range from simple tactics, such as propping open doors and windows, to more complex investments to upgrade ventilation systems by installing better filters and portable cleaners, with officials urging building operators to tap funds previously made available through coronavirus stimulus packages.

As state and local leaders roll back vaccination and mask mandates, experts say improving indoor air quality is increasingly essential as a tool to contain coronavirus risks.

“It’s important that this becomes a passive control measure — passive in the sense that it doesn’t require people to do anything,” said Joseph Allen, director of the Healthy Buildings program at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “It’s not requiring you to wear a mask, or wear a good mask or wear it right. It’s operating in the background all the time.”

Although scientists hailed the White House’s moves, they said they were frustrated that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, among other groups, had initially resisted warnings that the virus was spreading through microscopic particles that can hang in the air long after an infected person has departed.

“This is a total rejection” of earlier assumptions that the virus was spread through direct contact between individuals, said David Michaels, a George Washington University professor who previously led the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and advised Biden’s transition team on the coronavirus pandemic. “I think much of the world has been dragged kicking and screaming into this because the World Health Organization and the CDC both clung to the infectious-disease model.”

The CDC, the WHO and other groups initially maintained that the virus mostly spread in large droplets that fell to the ground within a few feet of the person expelling them, probably through a cough or a sneeze. But research has shown that it is often transmitted through the air in far smaller and more numerous particles that are aerosolized and, therefore, can travel distances — and require very different approaches to managing.

The White House telegraphed its growing focus on air quality in a coronavirus response plan released on March 2, following Biden’s State of the Union address. The Environmental Protection Agency earlier this month also announced its Clean Air in Buildings Challenge, a tool kit for how building owners and operators can ensure more healthful air, such as by circulating clean outdoor air indoors and installing better air filtration devices. The Biden administration has yet to craft regulations, however, or provideadditional funding that experts say is needed.

Administration officials said improvements are underway, noting that schools have already spent billions of dollars in coronavirus stimulus funds to upgrade ventilation systems.

“We really did want to raise this up as a priority,” said Mary Wall, a senior adviser on the White House coronavirus response team, pointing to the EPA tool kit and pledging that more initiatives are forthcoming. “We know this is long work that takes time.”

In interviews, four scientists involved with the White House’s event on Tuesday lamented missed opportunities earlier in the pandemic to highlight the link between the virus and indoor air quality. More than 200 scientists in July 2020 called on the WHO and other global health bodies to acknowledge the risk that the coronavirus could spreadby air — a petition that for months was largely ignored.

“We should have done it earlier,” said Linsey Marr, an environmental engineer at Virginia Tech who was among the first scientists to warn in 2020 that the coronavirus was spreading by air. “But, as far as this effort led by the White House, it’s better late than never.”

The CDC in October 2020 first acknowledged “limited, uncommon circumstances” when people were infected with the virus through airborne transmission, particularly in enclosed spaces with inadequate ventilation. Later, in May 2021, the agency revised its guidance to emphasize that airborne transmission was a significant driver of infection.

But, for much of the pandemic, healthofficialshighlighted measures such as social distancing and wearing cloth masks that may defend against large droplets but offered far less protection against aerosols.

Meanwhile, scientists said, leaders could have done more to prop open windows, adjust HVAC systems to use more outdoor air, add portable HEPA air cleaners and take other immediate steps to improve indoor air quality and mitigate risks as soon as the summer of 2020, when evidence on the virus’s airborne spread was first apparent.

Tuesday’s White House event featured experts including Marr, Allen and Zeynep Tufekci, a University of North Carolina sociologist who has written extensively on how the virus can be transmitted by air, who shared their findings.Officials also spoke on the need to tailor air quality goals and standards to different environments.

“We have unique challenges when we’re addressing indoor air quality in schools,” said Tracy Enger, a program manager at EPA. Compared with adults, she added, children “breathe deeper and faster, so they’re more vulnerable and more susceptible to a lot of the exposures. They have hand-to-mouth activities. They are what one of my friends calls ‘belly botanists.’”

Michaels, the former OSHA head, said the benefits of the change in focus would include curbing the risk of other respiratory diseases.

“It makes clean indoor air a priority, just like clean water,” Michaels said.

The hospital industry, he said, has “always fought against having to treat infectious disease as airborne because they put people in rooms for the most part, put a curtain around them and put someone else in the bed 10 feet away, and they think the curtains are going to protect people.”

The White House “is saying that that’s not going to work,” he added.

[Source: The Washington Post]

PFAS in household waste may be going airborne

Incineration of municipal waste containing “forever chemicals” could further spread contamination, research suggests.

Marina Schauffler

Mar 28, 2022

As states work to limit the use of PFAS, one path for their spread is often overlooked: incineration of consumer waste, such as clothing, textiles, food packaging, paints, and electronics.

Regulatory agencies are paying some attention to the PFAS (per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances) waste stream, such as contaminated leachate from landfills. However, about 12% of the U.S. waste stream goes to the country’s 75 aging municipal solid waste incinerators, with minimal research on likely byproducts of burning PFAS-tainted trash.

Now “PFAS in air emissions and incineration are becoming more of a focus,” Lydia Jahl, a science and policy associate for the Green Science Policy Institute, told EHN.

Related: What are PFAS?

Ingesting contaminated water and food pose the highest known risk for PFAS exposure, which is linked to multiple negative health outcomes including some cancers, reproductive problems, and birth defects. Airborne emissions from incinerators could be spreading PFAS significant distances, researchers warn, increasing the risk of contaminated water and soil downwind of facilities.

Research in Europe suggests waste incinerators are contributing to plumes of airborne PFAS pollution, but U.S. regulators are not yet tracking this threat.

PFAS resist thermal degradation

Municipal waste incinerators only report hazardous air pollutants–like dioxin, mercury, and lead–to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) every three years, and PFAS compounds are not yet listed in this category. Some PFAS were recently added to the agency’s Toxic Release Inventory, which mandates annual reporting of how toxic compounds are managed, but researchers have noted that the initial PFAS reporting likely underestimates airborne emissions.

Dubbed “forever chemicals,” PFAS are notoriously long-lived due to strong carbon-fluorine bonds. EPA’s research suggests that these “chemicals are not really broken down at normal incinerator temperatures,” Tim Schroeder, a geologist at Bennington College in Vermont who has studied the movement of PFAS through local ecosystems, told EHN.

“Much is currently unknown” about how PFAS compounds behave during incineration, a spokesperson for the EPA’s Office of Research and Development wrote in an email to EHN, explaining that PFAS molecules at lower temperatures may not break apart or may decompose partially and recombine to form new PFAS.

A team of international scientists reached a similar conclusion in a recent study of fluoropolymers, a sub-class of PFAS, writing that “it is currently unclear whether typical municipal solid waste incinerators can safely destroy fluoropolymers without emissions of harmful PFAS and other problematic substances.”

The Solid Waste Association of North America has more confidence that incinerators “designed to manage non-hazardous waste are destroying most of the PFAS in municipal solid waste” based on the potential temperatures they can achieve, Jeremy O’Brien, SWANA’s director of applied research, told EHN. That premise, however, is not based on emissions testing or even continuous temperature monitoring at U.S. incinerators. “Further testing of actual emissions may be useful to better quantify potential health risks,” he added.

EPA has no field testing underway to determine what kinds or levels of PFAS may be emitted through municipal waste incineration, and “no timeline for testing,” but a spokesperson wrote that characterizing these emissions “remains an EPA priority.” Meanwhile, Europe has begun assessing potential public health and environmental risks from PFAS exposure linked to waste incineration.

Europe finds ‘alarming’ levels of PFAS downwind of incinerators

airborne PFAS

Source: U.S. EPA

Testing incinerator emissions is complicated by the daunting number of PFAS compounds, upwards of 9,000. In Europe, researchers used bioassays [which detect compounds in living tissues or organs] to circumvent the challenges of chemically assessing stack emissions for all the potential PFAS in a study completed for Zero Waste Europe. Funded by the European Union, the research involved testing for PFAS and other pollutants in animal and plant cells at sites downwind of three waste incinerators.

Released in January, the studies found high levels of PFAS in chicken eggs and mosses near a waste incinerator in the Czech Republic. Downwind of an incinerator in Madrid, Spain, researcher Abel Arkenbout, a Dutch toxicologist from the ToxicoWatch Foundation, reported “alarming” PFAS levels in pine needles, 10 times greater than the reference sample.

Based on these findings and review of some not-yet-published studies, Arkenbout told EHN via email, “our hypothesis is that PFAS cannot be destroyed completely at temperatures used in Waste-to-Energy [municipal waste] incinerators.”

This biomonitoring work was the first such study done in Europe, but Xenia Trier, a chemicals, environment and human health expert with the Air Pollution, Environment and Health branch of the European Environment Agency, wrote EHN that “emissions of PFAS from waste facilities are on the radar in Europe, and there will likely be more research studies on this through national and EU funding.”

Airborne PFAS

If the European hypothesis that incinerators are emitting PFAS proves true, where do those molecules go?

Tracking the movement of PFAS emitted from industrial or incinerator stacks is a more “three-dimensional” challenge than following it downstream in a river flowing one way with two banks, explained Ralph Mead, a chemistry professor at University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) and co-author of a recent study tracking how PFAS compounds settle out of the atmosphere.

The path and distance that airborne molecules travel depends on temperature, humidity, and wind speed, and when the compounds shift from a gas to a particle.

In a study done in Vermont, Schroeder of Bennington College found a downwind plume of PFAS dispersal that extended over roughly 125 square miles, including some sites 2,000 feet higher in elevation than the factory source. While both that study and the UNCW one assessed PFAS dispersion from manufacturing facilities, “it’s a logical extension,” Schroeder said, to assume similar transport patterns from incinerator stacks.

The North Carolina facility Mead studied is a Chemours (formerly DuPont) plant that produces a newer PFAS compound known as GenX, the chemical HFPO-DA, marketed as a safer replacement (despite old and recent research confirming that it poses similar health and environmental threats). EPA modeling there showed that 97.4% of the GenX emitted from the site traveled more than 93 miles.

‘Legacy’ forms of PFAS (manufactured prior to 2015) have been found at both poles due to atmospheric transport, and the GenX replacement–which EPA describes as “more mobile” and equally persistent–is now moving around the globe, even turning up in Arctic waters.

Atmospheric deposition is unquestionably one of the routes of PFAS contamination, Mead said, and it’s gaining attention. “From a scientific perspective, it’s fascinating. From an environmental health and human health perspective, it’s pretty scary.”

Want to know more about PFAS? Check out our comprehensive guide.

[Source: Environmental Health News]