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How ordinary Kiwi cyclists started being seen as ‘elitist’

By Timothy Welch

The Conversation

Something strange has happened to the perception of cyclists and cycling in the more than 200 years they’ve been around.

Once a novelty, bike riding has moved from being a critical transport mode to a children’s pastime to now being popularly perceived as an elitist activity.

This was readily apparent after the recent “liberate the lane” protest on Auckland’s harbour bridge. Cyclists who broke a police barrier and rode onto the motorway were variously described as privileged, white, entitled and, yes, elitist.

Ask most people what a cyclist looks like and they’ll more than likely conjure an image of the stereotypical rider – decked out head to toe in lycra, absurd aerodynamic helmet, wraparound sunglasses and, of course, a futuristic bike capable of slicing through the headwinds.

But that image owes much more to marketing than reality. In the 1960s and 1970s, the market was full of cheap and reliable steel ten-speed bikes. These were fantastic commuters with minimal sex appeal. At that time, the stereotypical cyclist was just an average person.

Then the 1980s welcomed the newly invented mountain bike and the cycling world splintered into different camps. Road cyclists split into high-speed racing, triathlon and long-distance sub-tribes. Along the way, marketing and business were eager to sell more and more specialised gear.

But mainstream cyclists have always been there, wearing everyday clothing, obeying the rules of the road and riding modest bicycles. Their averageness has contributed to their invisibility. For this mainstream, however, one thing always remained constant: cycling is cheap.

Low cost and affordable

Cars are costly to own, especially compared to a bicycle. Thanks to the meticulous research of New Zealander John Meekings, we can directly compare those costs. Tracking his expenses from initial purchase for ten years and across 100,000km, he calculated the total cost of owning and operating his bike was about 4 cents/km.

Logically, for cycling to be an elitist transport mode, the cost of car ownership would have to be considerably lower. So, is it? The Automobile Association did the maths using a very moderately priced NZ$26,600 car (we’re in Suzuki Swift territory here).

Taking into account variable and fixed costs, with an average annual driving distance of 14,000km, the cost of ownership was $21 per day. That works out to about 54 cents/km, or more than 13 times the cost of bicycle ownership.

At this difference, there is more than enough money left over for the average cyclist to buy a full lycra suit with all the accoutrements and still spend vastly less than what a typical driver pays.

Better yet, cyclists could extend their mobility with an e-bike, which makes cycling accessible to a large proportion of the population. Even the most expensive e-bike is a fraction of the price of a new car, not counting the unpriced environmental costs of car ownership. A good e-bike costs less than the credit available under the government’s electric vehicle “feebate” scheme.

Equitable and egalitarian

Cycling is far more widespread than we often think. More than 50% of Aucklanders own a bike, and many use that bike quite frequently. Cyclists in Auckland hail from every corner of the city, not just from the wealthiest enclaves.

Bikes are also an accessible and often vital transport mode for minority populations. Contrary to the accusation cycling is predominantly white and middle-class, for example, recent research indicates it’s just as common among Māori as with Pākehā – though Māori may be more reliant on the bicycle.

Rather than being elitist, then, cycling is perhaps one of the most equitable forms of transport.

Certainly, Auckland’s proposed $780 million bicycle and pedestrian bridge does little to reduce the elitist image, but it is also not what cycling activists were demanding.

Contrary to the elitist stereotyping, cyclists aren’t asking for gold-plated cycleways and separate infrastructure. They do want a fair share of the country’s existing road network set aside as a relatively safe place to commute – space for which they have paid through taxes and rates.

Even the most extravagantly lycra-clad cyclist, let alone the humble everyday pedal pusher, spends less on getting around than the most frugal motorist. By any such measure, if riders on cycleways are elitists, then so are pedestrians on footpaths.

[Source: RNZ]

Doctors Might Have Been Focusing on the Wrong Asthma Triggers

The pandemic was a big social experiment that sent asthma attacks plummeting.

By Sarah Zhang

Nicole Lawson spent the beginning of the pandemic incredibly worried about her daughter, who has asthma. Five-year-old Scarlett’s asthma attacks were already landing her in the ER or urgent care every few months. Now a scary new virus was spreading. Respiratory viruses are known triggers of asthma attacks, and doctors also feared at the time that asthma itself could lead to more severe coronavirus infections. So Lawson’s family in Ohio hunkered down quickly and masked up often to keep Scarlett healthy.

The ensuing months, to everyone’s surprise, turned into “this beautiful year,” Lawson told me. Scarlett hasn’t had a single asthma attack. Not a single visit to the ER. Nothing. She’s breathing so much better, and all it took was a global pandemic that completely upended normal life.

All around the country, doctors have spent the pandemic wondering why their patients with asthma were suddenly doing so well. Asthma attacks have plummeted. Paediatric ICUs have sat strangely empty. “We braced ourselves for significant problems for the millions of people living with asthma,” says David Stukus, Scarlett’s doctor at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. “It was the complete opposite. It’s amazing.” (Fears about people with asthma getting more severe COVID-19 infections haven’t been borne out either.) Studies in other countries, including England, Scotland, and South Korea, also found big drops in hospital and doctor’s-office visits for asthma attacks.

The massive global experiment that is the pandemic is now leading doctors to rethink some long-held assumptions about the disease. Asthma is a chronic condition that occasionally flares up, leading to 3,500 deaths and 1.6 million emergency-room visits a year in the United States. These acute attacks can be triggered by a number of environmental factors: viruses, pollen, mould, dust mites, rodents, cockroaches, pet dander, smoke, air pollution, etc. Doctors have often scrutinized allergens that patients can control at home, such as pests and second-hand smoke. But patients have stayed at home for a year and suffered dramatically fewer asthma attacks—suggesting bigger roles for other triggers, especially routine cold and flu viruses, which nearly vanished this year with social distancing and masks.

With life in the U.S. snapping back to normal, asthma doctors and patients are facing another new reality. Masks are going away; schools will be reopening in the fall. The pandemic unexpectedly reduced asthma attacks, and now doctors and patients have to navigate between what they know is possible in extraordinary conditions and what is practical in more ordinary ones.

The most compelling evidence that asthma attacks truly did go down during the pandemic exists because of a stroke of good luck. Back in 2018, Elliot Israel, a pulmonologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, in Boston, began asking Black and Hispanic or Latino adults with asthma to track their attacks at home for a study called PREPARE. (These groups have disproportionate rates of severe asthma, compared with white patients.) Israel intended to compare two different ways of using long-term asthma medication, such as inhaled steroids. His team enrolled its last participant—patient No. 1,201—in March 2020. The COVID-19 shutdowns began a week later.

“We were very lucky,” Israel told me. Because of the study’s timing, his team had plenty of data from before the pandemic. And because the participants were filling out monthly questionnaires from home, the shutdowns did not affect the data collection.

Meanwhile, Israel, like his colleagues across the country, was noticing an eerie lack of non-coronavirus patients. Hospital visits for heart attacks and strokes were also dropping during the pandemic. Were asthma patients just avoiding the hospital because they were afraid of catching the virus? “That was the initial thought: What if these people are suffering at home?” says Justin Salciccioli, a pulmonologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a co-author with Israel on the resulting paper about asthma attacks during the pandemic.

The answer became clear as the monthly questionnaires started rolling in. The number of attacks the participants suffered at home really was dropping. It fell by 40 percent after the onset of the pandemic. “We know that this isn’t reluctance to go to the emergency room,” Israel said. “This is a true, real decrease.”

In that case, why? Israel and his team didn’t see a clear pattern connected to changes in air pollution. People who normally worked outside the home, however, had bigger decreases in asthma attacks than those who worked at home (65 percent compared with 23 percent), perhaps because they were no longer being exposed to viruses and irritants at work. And people whose type of asthma is driven by environmental triggers also saw bigger improvements than those whose asthma is driven more by underlying inflammation. All of this suggests that people really were able to avoid triggers during the pandemic.

Ordinary respiratory viruses may play a bigger role in asthma attacks than previously thought, Israel said. People with asthma, like everyone else who masked up and practised social distancing, were this year exposed to many fewer viruses known to trigger flare-ups. Even asymptomatic infections that normally go unnoticed might cause an asthma attack in someone whose airways are especially sensitive. “That extra irritation, that extra inflammation, pushes them over the edge,” Israel said.

Asthma experts I spoke with all agreed that reduced viral exposure likely played a part in the drop, but the pandemic changed so many things at once that other factors are hard to rule out. Staying at home might have made it easier for people to keep up with their regular long-term asthma medication. They were also no longer exposed to potential triggers at work or school, such as diesel from school buses or chemicals in cleaning products. Asthma can be very individual, with exact triggers varying from person to person. But the overall picture is impossible to ignore: The sweeping changes to our social lives during the pandemic made asthma a lot easier to control.

If viruses indeed play a bigger factor in asthma attacks than initially thought, doctors might have been mistakenly fixating on other factors. “We’ve forever talked about the environmental contribution to asthma. There are pollutants and irritants and allergens inside the home,” says Stukus, who is also a member of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America’s Medical Scientific Council. If these factors really were so important, though, asthma attacks should have gone up, not down, during the pandemic.

It’s long been routine for doctors to question parents of kids with asthma about dust mites or cockroaches or smoking in the home, says Christopher Carroll, a paediatric-critical-care doctor at Connecticut Children’s. He’s asked these questions himself. But, he says, “the unstated implication when you’re asking about triggers like that is that those are causes of your child’s asthma.” This has the effect of blaming patients or parents of patients, when factors outside the home might actually play a bigger role. “We have this paternalistic attitude in medicine,” adds Janine Zee-Cheng, a paediatrician in Indiana. “You’re non-compliant with your medicines. Or you’re not monitoring your kid’s meds. Or you’re smoking indoors.” It’s “doctor knows best”—but the pandemic has exposed how much doctors did not know.

Rethinking the role of viruses in asthma attacks is a bit more complicated in practice. COVID-19 precautions tamped down every other respiratory virus, but those precautions won’t last forever. Cases of respiratory syncytial virus, one cause of the common cold, have already spiked. Carroll expects that he will keep wearing a mask in hospitals, but masks are coming off everywhere else. More and more now, wearing one means sticking out. And unfortunately, the health benefits of a face mask have also been overwhelmed by its potency as a political symbol.

This is what worries Lawson, as Scarlett goes off with her friends and begins pre-K in the fall. She can’t keep Scarlett cocooned forever. Her daughter will be exposed to viruses. “I would be lying if I said it didn’t make me anxious,” Lawson said. Masking up in the winter seems like a no-brainer, but she can already imagine the judgment her family might face. This choice isn’t about politics, though. It’s about Scarlett’s asthma. Lawson remembers the two Thanksgivings in a row when Scarlett got so sick, she had to be hospitalized. It didn’t happen this past Thanksgiving, and she hopes it never happens again.

[Source: The Atlantic]

‘Bin Diesel’ and ‘Truck Norris’ on the job

Emission Impossible Ltd would like to give a shout-out to Hutt City Council’s new EV waste collection fleet.

Electric recycling trucks Bin Diesel, Truck Norris, Trucky McTruckface and Recyclosaurus Rex are now on the road making collections in Wellington. Bruce Springclean, Trash Gordon and Chitty Chitty Bin Bin are soon to follow.

The electric vehicles are operated by Waste Management as part of a new Hutt City Council kerbside waste and recycling contract which will see the company taking on the region’s waste until 2029.

To promote recycling in the community, Hutt City Council asked the public to submit names for each of the trucks, then put it to a final vote via Facebook where the names were recently announced. 

Waste Management’s Wellington EV fleet is now on par with Auckland’s and once the three extra vehicles arrive, the city will have the company’s largest EV fleet in the country. 

The new Hutt City contract is described as a “massive undertaking” which involves general waste wheelie bins, mixed recycling wheelie bins, (opt-in) garden waste wheelie bins and glass recycling crates being delivered to around 40,000 households in the region.

Dan Toma collects glass in EV Trucky McTruckface

[Source: EVs and Beyond]

Air Pollution: How to Create an ‘Air Quality’ Garden

A recent poll commissioned by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) found that only 6% of the population in the UK are taking active steps in the garden to help improve air quality. In London, its much worse with only 4% of gardens planted with pollution in mind. While the main causes of air pollution need to be tackled at source – for example, by legislation such as the proposed ban on sales of new petrol and diesel cars and vans in the UK by 2030 – residents can also do their bit by choosing plants that help reduce the effects of air pollution.

A Phyto-Sensor Toolkit, developed by Citizen Sense, a project led by Professor Jennifer Gabrys at the University of Cambridge, is a detailed guide that offers advice on different plants, highlighting those that absorb “gaseous pollutants through their stomata, drawing in heavy metals through their roots, or channelling and depositing particulates in their leaves” – particularly helpful in polluted urban environments.  The Toolkit lists plants that are beneficial to air quality. These were trialled in 2018 in a low-emission garden outside the Museum of London. Plants with hairy and rough or waxy leaves can capture particulates more easily, reducing them by up to 60% and cutting nitrogen dioxide by up to 40%.

This list includes Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Ladies Mantle (Alchemilla mollis), Silverbush or Shrubby bindweed (Convolvulus cneorum), Wallflower (Erysimum), Lavender (Lavandula), Coral Bells (Heuchera), and Ivy (Hedera helix) because of its plentiful leaves.

Some of the plants in the Toolkit help to monitor air quality; their leaves will wilt or show signs of damage if air quality is poor. Examples include Red Elder (Sambucus racemosa), which is sensitive to ozone and exhibits damage to leaves and growth; and Delavay Osmanthus (Osmanthus delavayi), which experiences leaf damage when exposed to sulphur dioxide.

A new RHS science paper looked at the effectiveness of hedges as air pollution barriers and estimated that the bushy, hairy-leafed Franchet’s Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster franchetii) was 20% more effective at trapping harmful airborne particles in traffic hotspots than other shrubs. Professor Prashant Kumar, founder and director of GCARE at the University of Surrey, says: “The high particle capture during peak-traffic hours at around the breathing height of children compared with adult-breathing height reinforces our advocacy for the implementation of hedges as a barrier against traffic emissions, particularly around school boundaries, children’s play areas, and other vulnerable populations.”

The full article is available on DIY Garden.

Note: The plants identified in the article are suitable in a UK environment. Plants such as Cotoneaster and Ivy are identified as invasive species here in New Zealand. So be sure to check your local invasive species plant list before undertaking any planting.

[Source: Rachel Brown, DIY Garden, 5th April 2021]

Cancer has a smell. Someday your phone may detect it.

Our sense of smell is still a mystery. But that’s not stopping research on robot noses.

This adorable pup has been trained to sniff for cancer. Could a robot do the same? Courtesy of Claire Guest

In our homes and in our pockets, there are electronics that can hear, see, and sense our touch. Your smartphone probably does all three. What’s missing: technology that can smell. But this may be changing, as detailed on the latest episode of Unexplainable, Vox’s new weekly podcast exploring unanswered questions in science.

The technology to make smartphones that smell is nearing reality, says Andreas Mershin, a research scientist and inventor at MIT. “I think we’re maybe five years away, maybe a little bit less,” he says, “to get it from where it is now to fully inside of a phone. And I’m talking [about deploying it] into a hundred million phones.”

The idea isn’t necessarily to have Siri tell you when you need a shower (though, that could be helpful for some people). There’s a bigger public-health mission: Replicate the incredible disease detection capabilities of dogs in a more portable, accessible form to help flag insidious illnesses early on.

Dogs can smell cancer, Parkinson’s, malaria, and other conditions that cause changes in human body odor. There’s even research underway on dogs’ ability to smell Covid-19.

Scientists could train more and more dogs to aid in disease detection, and deploy them around the world. But this kind of training is expensive, difficult, and time-consuming. Plus, not everyone likes dogs, and not everyone would appreciate being sniffed by a dog before a basketball game or during a doctor’s appointment.

Essentially, the hope is for scientists to engineer a robot nose to detect diseases the way a dog’s nose can.

“The idea has always been for the dog to translate what he knows with his nose to an electronic device,” says Claire Guest, a scientist who is researching Covid-19-sniffing dogs.

One of the things that’s so intriguing about robot noses is that researchers have been able to make headway on them despite not completely understanding how biological noses function. This is the central mystery of this week’s episode of Unexplainable: How can scientists build a robot nose if they don’t understand how smell works?

The challenge of robot noses, explained

Scientists know a lot of the basic mechanics of smell. They know that deep in our noses, there are special receptors that interact with the odor molecules we breathe in. And they know that those receptors send signals to the brain.

What they don’t know is why things smell the way they do. That is, why does one odor molecule smell one way, while another similarly shaped odor molecule smells different? That’s still a mystery. (With vision, for example, there are only a handful of receptor types, and the way they interact is well understood. With smell, there are 400 types, and we’ve only just begun to understand how they work together to detect a smell.)

But the mystery of smell isn’t deterring scientists like Mershin. “I have access to over $100 million worth of equipment,” he says. “And it kind of pisses me off that a lowly dog can do better than $100 million worth of equipment. Something’s off with that picture. I should be able to do this!”

Mershin first attempted to build a robot nose in 2007, when DARPA, the research and development agency for the US Defense Department, announced a challenge. It wanted to see if someone could build a robot nose that could detect certain molecules. DARPA didn’t make the exact list public, but based on the list, Mershin suspects the molecules had to do with smelling bombs, drugs, or dead bodies.

So how do you build a robot nose? Mershin, his collaborator at MIT, Shuguang Zhang, and their team first thought that they might build something that could directly detect the odor molecules themselves — something like a souped-up carbon monoxide detector. When any smelly molecule entered the detector, similar to when carbon monoxide gas enters a CO detector, an alarm would go off.

They used real smell receptors, which they grew in cells. And they spread the receptors out over a circuit board. (All sensory receptors exist to translate the outside world into electrical signals our brains can understand. In this case, the signals would transfer to circuitry instead.)

The hope was that the receptors would give a readout of all the odor molecules nearby. But then the team realized there were so many molecules it would need to detect, so many smells bouncing around, that the alarms would have gone off way too often. So the team decided not to build this machine.

For their next attempt, which they called the Nano-Nose, Mershin and Zhang tried something different.

Whereas their previous version was supposed to detect individual molecules, this one looked at the bigger picture: the overall smell. (A smell isn’t just a combination of molecules; it’s the particular way those molecules interact with a complicated series of receptors in your nose. It’s still a mystery how it all comes together. Check out our episode of Unexplainable for more.) The Nano-Nose recorded the frenzied pattern of electrical activity produced by the receptors in the presence of an odor. The readout looked something like a stock ticker. Each smell, Mershin found, produced a particular pattern that the computer (i.e., the brain) could recognize.

Essentially, Mershin used machine learning (a form of artificial intelligence) to let the Nano-Nose figure out its own way to recognize the smells. Interestingly, this is pretty much how disease-sniffing dogs are trained too. Mershin exposed the Nano-Nose to what it needed to recognize for the test, and then let the Nano-Nose teach itself how to recognize the smells.

Ultimately, he showed that the Nano-Nose could detect smells using real receptors, and do so pretty sensitively. But the DARPA test was in an extremely controlled environment, which may be why DARPA discontinued the program after a few years. The real world is much more complicated.

Mershin is continuing his research, trying to prepare the Nano-Nose for everyday applications. And while earlier iterations were as big as a desktop, Mershin now says he’s shrunk the technology so that it could fit inside a smartphone.

Noses in our phones could help save lives

Mershin still needs to train the Nano-Nose more before it can actually smell diseases in everyday situations. In the real world, there are countless smells floating around, which is a very different situation from the clean, controlled environment of the DARPA test. To get past this hurdle, Mershin needs to expose the receptors to many more smells to improve its algorithm. But the basic proof of concept is here, and phones that smell may not be far off.

Granting phones a new way to monitor our behavior comes with some clear concerns. Would the data smelled by the phone be private? Could the robot nose be hacked or accessible to advertisers? These are questions we already ask about our phones’ ability to see and hear us, often with unsatisfying answers.

The privacy implications may be worrying, but the benefit seems clear: A pocket-sized robot nose could help save lives. “Any single one of us can have a mole that becomes malignant,” Mershin says. “If you wait six months, sometimes it becomes a death sentence.” But if your phone could notice a change of smell, it might alert you earlier.

Guest, the scientist training dogs to detect disease, says she understands this lifesaving potential personally. Years after she began her research, her dog Daisy started looking upset. She kept “staring at me and then nudging at me and staring at me and nudging at me,” she says. She felt where Daisy was nudging and found a lump. She was eventually diagnosed with breast cancer, and it’s quite possible that Daisy saved her life.

Not everyone has access to dogs like Guest’s. But nearly everyone has a smartphone. Right now, our phones can’t smell cancer. But one day, they might save a life.

Further reading

  • A recent article in The Scientist about Mershin and Guest’s most recent work using machine learning to mimic a dog’s ability to detect cancer
  • There’s a theory that the way our noses really work is by using quantum mechanics. It gets a little complicated, but if you want a deep dive, see this article by Ann-Sophie Barwich. It’s about why the scientific community got so enamored with the quantum nose theory and why the theory likely isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
  • Barwich has also written an entire book about the history and mystery of smell. It’s called Smellosophy: What the Nose Tells the Mind.

[Source: Vox]

Beijing skies turn orange as sandstorm and pollution send readings off the scale

Capital of China suffers ‘hazardous’ levels of air pollution with authorities issuing second-highest safety alert

A massive sandstorm has combined with already high air pollution to turn the skies in Beijing an eerie orange, and send some air quality measurements off the charts.

Air quality indexes recorded a “hazardous” 999 rating on Monday as commuters travelled to work through the thick, dark air across China’s capital and further west.

Chinese meteorological authorities issued its second highest alert level shortly before 7.30am, staying in place until midday. A broader warning for sand and dust blowing in from the western desert regions was put in effect until Tuesday morning.

When Beijing’s realtime air quality index (AQI) showed a reading of 999, Tokyo recorded 42, Sydney 17 and New York 26. Hong Kong and Taiwan recorded “moderate” readings of 66 and 87, respectively.

Levels of PM2.5, the small air pollution particles that infiltrate the lungs, were recorded above 600 micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m3) in many parts of the city, reaching a 24-hour average of 200 µg/m3 before midday. The World Health Organization recommends average daily concentrations of just 25 µg/m3.

The sandstorm blown in from the desert stretching into Inner Mongolia saw concentrations of the larger PM10 particles surpass 8,000 µg/m3 according to state media.

State media reported at least 341 people were reported missing in neighbouring Mongolia, which was also hit by sandstorms, and flights were grounded out of Hohhot in inner Mongolia.

On social media several people shared screenshots of other air quality indexes showed readings of more than 9,000, officially “beyond index”.

Some residents in Ningxia, in China’s west, said they woke up in the middle of the night feeling as though they couldn’t breathe. One commenter on Weibo joked that they felt like they needed to learn how to ride a camel.

Sandstorms are relatively common at this time of year, and usually attributed to winds blowing across the Gobi desert, but long-term residents said they had not seen one of this severity in years.

Large-scale deforestation is also considered a factor in the spring dust storms, and China has been trying to reforest and restore the ecology of the region in order to limit how much sand is blown into the capital.

Beijing has planted a “great green wall” of trees to trap incoming dust, and tried to create air corridors that channel the wind and allow sand and other pollutants to pass through more quickly.

Beijing and surrounding regions have been suffering from high levels of pollution in recent weeks, with the city shrouded in smog during the national session of parliament which began earlier this month.

Tangshan, China’s top steelmaking city and a major source of pollution in Beijing and Hebei, said on Saturday it would punish local enterprises for failing to carry out emergency anti-smog measures.

[Source: The Guardian – units added]

EU sues more countries over air pollution

February 19, 2021

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Commission said on Thursday it was suing Slovakia for years-long breaches of legal limits on air pollution and started legal action against Germany and Slovenia for falling short on nature conservation and water treatment.

Air pollution in Europe has eased in the last decade, but remains the continent’s biggest environmental health risk. Fine particulate pollution caused 379,000 premature deaths in the EU in 2018, according to the European Environment Agency.

Brussels has set legal limits on particulate matter since 2005, resulting in a series of legal actions against countries flouting the rules.

The commission on Thursday took Slovakia to court for breaching EU particulate matter limits in every year from 2005-2019, except for 2016, in Banskobystricky kraj, a mountainous region in central Slovakia. The eastern city of Kosice breached the limits each year from 2005-2019, except for 2015 and 2016, the commission said.

Slovakia’s efforts to fix the problem have failed to reduce pollution in line with legal limits or minimise the length of breaches, it said.

Slovakian Environment Minister Jan Budaj said the national and local governments would mobilise support to address air pollution.

“We need a new political and social acceptance to clean the air of Slovakia and I am convinced that we will achieve that,” he said.

If found guilty, Slovakia would join a list of nine EU states that the bloc’s top court has found guilty of illegal air pollution, including Romania, Italy and Sweden. Failure to heed the rules could see those countries face further legal action from the EU to impose financial penalties.

Particulate matter is produced by industry, vehicle emissions and home heating, as well as some agriculture, and is associated with cardiovascular diseases and lung cancer.

The commission also sued Germany on Thursday for a “general and persistent” failure to produce sufficient conservation plans for more than 4,000 sites deemed important for protecting nature.

The EU executive also sued Slovenia for not properly treating waste water in four cities and towns before discharging it.

Reporting by Kate Abnett, editing by Marine Strauss and Nick Macfie [Source: Reuters]

Deaths from fossil fuel emissions higher than previously thought

February 9, 2021

More than 8 million people died in 2018 from fossil fuel pollution, significantly higher than previous research suggested, according to new research from Harvard University, in collaboration with the University of Birmingham, the University of Leicester and University College London. Researchers estimated that exposure to particulate matter from fossil fuel emissions accounted for 18 percent of total global deaths in 2018  — a little less than 1 out of 5.

Regions with the highest concentrations of fossil fuel-related air pollution — including Eastern North America, Europe, and South-East Asia — have the highest rates of mortality, according to the study published in the journal Environmental Research.

The study greatly increases estimates of the numbers killed by air pollution. The most recent Global Burden of Disease Study, the largest and most comprehensive study on the causes of global mortality, put the total number of global deaths from all outdoor airborne particulate matter — including dust and smoke from wildfires and agricultural burns — at 4.2 million.  

The findings underscore the detrimental impact of fossil fuels on global health.

How did the researchers arrive at such a high number of fossil-fuel-caused deaths?

Previous research relied on satellite and surface observations to estimate the average global annual concentrations of airborne particulate matter, known as PM2.5. The problem is, satellite and surface observations can’t tell the difference between particles from fossil fuel emissions and those from dust, wildfire smoke or other sources. 

“With satellite data, you’re seeing only pieces of the puzzle,” said Loretta J. Mickley, Senior Research Fellow in Chemistry-Climate Interactions at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and co-author of the study. “It is challenging for satellites to distinguish between types of particles, and there can be gaps in the data.” 

To overcome this challenge, the Harvard researchers turned to GEOS-Chem, a global 3-D model of atmospheric chemistry led at SEAS by Daniel Jacob, the Vasco McCoy Family Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry and Environmental Engineering. Previous studies have used GEOS-Chem to model the health impacts of particulate matter, and its results have been validated against surface, aircraft, and space-based observations around the world.

For a global model, GEOS-Chem has high spatial resolution, meaning the researchers could divide the globe into a grid with boxes as small as 50 km x 60 km and look at pollution levels in each box individually. 

“Rather than rely on averages spread across large regions, we wanted to map where the pollution is and where people live, so we could know more exactly what people are breathing,” said Karn Vohra, a graduate student at University of Birmingham and first author of the study. Vohra is advised by coauthor Eloise Marais, a former postdoctoral fellow at Harvard, now Associate Professor in the Department of Geography at UCL.

To model PM2.5 generated by fossil fuel combustion, the researchers plugged into GEOS-Chem estimates of emissions from multiple sectors, including power, industry, ships, aircraft and ground transportation and simulated detailed oxidant-aerosol chemistry driven by meteorology from the NASA Global Modeling and Assimilation Office. The researchers used emission and meteorology data primarily from 2012 because it was a year not influenced by El Niño, which can worsen or ameliorate air pollution, depending on the region. The researchers updated the data to reflect the significant change in fossil fuel emissions from China, which fell by about half between 2012 and 2018.

“While emission rates are dynamic, increasing with industrial development or decreasing with successful air quality policies, China’s air quality changes from 2012 to 2018 are the most dramatic because population and air pollution there are both large,” said Marais. “Similar cuts in other countries during that time period would not have had as large an impact on the global mortality number.” 

The combination of 2012 and 2018 data from China gave the researchers a clearer picture of global fossil fuel emission rates in 2018. 

Once they had the concentration of outdoor fossil-fuel PM2.5, the researchers needed to figure out how those levels impacted human health.  While it’s been known for decades that airborne particles are a danger to public health, there have been few epidemiological studies to quantify the health impacts at very high levels of exposure such as those found in China or India. Previous research converted health risks of indoor second-hand smoke exposures to estimate the risks of outdoor PM2.5 at these high levels. However, recent studies from Asia found that this approach substantially underestimates the risk at high concentrations of outdoor air pollution.

Coauthors Alina Vodonos and Joel Schwartz, Professor of Environmental Epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (HSPH), developed a new risk assessment model that linked the concentration levels of particulates from fossil fuel emissions to health outcomes. 

This new model found a higher mortality rate for long-term exposure to fossil fuel emissions, including at lower concentrations. 

“Often, when we discuss the dangers of fossil fuel combustion, it’s in the context of CO2 and climate change and overlook the potential health impact of the pollutants co-emitted with greenhouse gases,” said Schwartz. “We hope that by quantifying the health consequences of fossil fuel combustion, we can send a clear message to policymakers and stakeholders of the benefits of a transition to alternative energy sources.”

The research underscores the importance of policy decisions, said Vohra. 

The researchers estimated that China’s decision to cut its fossil fuels emissions nearly in half saved 2.4 million lives worldwide, including 1.5 million lives in China, in 2018.  

“Our study adds to the mounting evidence that air pollution from ongoing dependence on fossil fuels is detrimental to global health,” said Marais. “We can’t in good conscience continue to rely on fossil fuels, when we know that there are such severe effects on health and viable, cleaner alternatives.” 

This research was supported by the Wallace Global Fund, the Environment and Health Fund (EHF) Israel, The Environmental Protection Agency, and University of Birmingham Global Challenges PhD studentship.

[Source: Harvard School of Engineering & Applied Sciences]

Man saved from deportation after air pollution plea in French legal ‘first’

Court says man would face ‘worsening of his respiratory pathology due to air pollution’ in country of origin

Air pollution in Dhaka
Bangladesh ranked 179th in the world for air quality in 2020, while the concentration of fine particles in the air is six times the WHO’s recommended maximum. Photograph: Monirul Alam/EPA

A Bangladeshi man with asthma has avoided deportation from France after his lawyer argued that he risked a severe deterioration in his condition, and possibly premature death, due to the dangerous levels of pollution in his homeland.

In a ruling believed to be the first of its kind in France, the appeals court in Bordeaux overturned an expulsion order against the 40-year-old man because he would face “a worsening of his respiratory pathology due to air pollution” in his country of origin.

“To my knowledge, this is the first time a French court has applied the environment as one of its criteria in such a case,” the unnamed man’s lawyer, Ludovic Rivière, said. “It decided my client’s life would be endangered by the air quality in Bangladesh.”

Yale and Columbia universities’ Environmental Performance Index ranks Bangladesh 179th in the world for air quality in 2020, while the concentration of fine particles in the air is six times the World Health Organization’s recommended maximum. Air pollution, both ambient and household, was an extremely high risk factor in the 572,600 deaths in Bangladesh that were caused by noncommunicable disease in 2018, according to WHO figures.

The court took into consideration the fact that the drugs the man is receiving in France are not available in Bangladesh, and that the Bangladeshi health system can only provide the night-time ventilation equipment he needs for his sleep apnoea in hospital.

It also heard evidence that the man’s father had died of an asthma attack at the age of 54, Rivière said, and that since arriving in France and beginning treatment, his respiratory capacity had increased from 58% in 2013 to 70% in 2018.

“For all these reasons, the court decided that sending my client back to his country would mean putting him at real risk of death,” the lawyer said. “Respiratory failure as a result of an asthma attack would be almost inevitable.”

The man arrived in France in 2011 after fleeing persecution in his home country. He settled in Toulouse, found work as a waiter, and in 2015 was given a temporary residence permit as a foreign national requiring medical treatment.

In 2017, however, doctors advising the French immigration authorities recommended that his condition “could be adequately treated in Bangladesh”, and two years later the local Haute-Garonne prefecture issued an expulsion order.

A lower court in Toulouse overturned the deportation order in June last year, purely on the grounds that the relevant drugs were not in fact available in the man’s home country. The Bordeaux court went even further in rejecting the prefecture’s appeal, saying that the environmental criterion must also be taken into account.

Dr Gary Fuller, an air pollution scientist at Imperial College London, said this was the first case he was aware of in which the environment had been cited by a court in an extradition hearing. “The court has effectively declared that the environment – air pollution – meant it was unsafe to send this man back,” he said.

Fuller said the case fed into a steadily growing broader agenda about the right to a healthy environment. “There’s a UN rapporteur on this issue, and people around the world – particularly in countries with less developed environmental and health laws – who are developing thinking about declaring a right to a healthy environment.”

Many countries set standards for air and water quality, for example, but “stop short of actually saying you have a right to be protected from environmental harm”, Fuller said. The recent case of Ella Kissi-Debrah, the nine-year-old London girl who died in February 2013, could be seen as part of the same process, he said.

A London coroner made legal history last month by ruling that air pollution was a cause of Ella’s death, with acute respiratory failure and severe asthma. Court cases were being brought in other countries in Europe, Fuller said, as part of a growing trend around the world to seek institutional accountability for unhealthy environments.

[Source: The Guardian]

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[Kudos to the New York Times]