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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]

Who gets to breathe clean air?

Click here to view a new way of reporting on air quality.

[Kudos to the New York Times]








Climate action: the best gift for global health

The British Medical Journal weighs in this moment, right now.
Only 25% of a population is needed to change societal norms

The health community mobilised against covid-19 and can mobilise again.

December is a time for reflection, and there is much for us to process from 2020. The covid-19 pandemic proved to be an unprecedented global stress test for health systems—both revealing and exacerbating problematic areas. Disinformation and misinformation, mixed with a festering distrust of science, politicised age-old commonsense public health interventions.1,2 When prevention failed, even the best functioning healthcare systems broke under the surge of covid-19 patients. While the rollout of vaccines will lessen the pandemic burden, climate change still threatens to disrupt our health systems further and erode decades of health gains.

This month is the fifth anniversary of the Paris agreement, and we are at the critical juncture of countries disclosing their efforts to meet national commitments to reduce emissions.3 Thus far, the political will to implement policies that will avoid the most catastrophic health outcomes have failed to materialise; current policies place today’s world, already 1.2°C warmer than in pre-industrial times, at up to 4°C warmer by 2100.4,5

The fragility of health and health systems in a 1.2°C warmer world is already apparent, though these effects are not felt equally. Heatwave exposure among older people reached a record high in 2019, the conditions for transmitting dengue, malaria, and diseases caused by Vibrio are growing more favourable, and the yield potentials of major crops continue to decline.5 Yet only half of the countries surveyed have national climate and health plans, and two thirds of cities are concerned that climate change will overwhelm their public health infrastructure.5

After the events of 2020, many in health may find it hard to fathom tackling an existential crisis like climate change. Yet we are in the critical window for action6 and without a 7.6% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions each year over the next five years the goal of keeping the global temperature rise below 1.5°C in 2100 is likely to be out of reach.5,7 There are grounds for optimism, however, as the parallels and intersections with the covid-19 crisis have fostered advocacy for making climate action a critical part of pandemic recovery.7,8,9 The health community is well positioned10 to reinforce and amplify two key messages.

Firstly, climate action is essential for successfully tackling the other pressing global challenges affecting health, such as poverty and universal health coverage.11 Climate change underlies and exacerbates barriers for improving health, threatening to increasingly undermine health gains and widen inequalities.12 Governments must take an integrated approach when tackling these problems, and health professionals need to amplify the wide ranging health benefits of acting holistically.5

Climate action, equity, health, and economic goals are dependent and reinforce one another.5,7,13 Stimulus packages aimed at recovery from the pandemic offer a once in a generation opportunity to rapidly expand clean energy jobs and accelerate our transition to net zero economies.7,8,9 Most of the world has failed to capitalise on this opportunity.14

The second key message is that moving away from fossil fuels has health benefits and economic dividends in both the short and the long term. Although climate action yields greater gains for children and future generations, people today will also benefit, especially vulnerable groups. Air pollution has the same root cause as climate change—the burning of fossil fuels.15 Patients’ symptoms and healthcare use will improve in the weeks to months after air pollution is reduced, and lives will be saved.16 The pandemic lockdowns showed us just how quickly air pollution can improve.15,17 Transitioning away from fossil fuels could prevent 3.6 million premature deaths a year from air pollution alone and save nations billions in healthcare costs.5,7,18 Meanwhile, transitioning to more plant based diets and increasing physical activity through active transportation also bring near term health benefits.13

Long term, mitigating the health effects of climate change and minimising health system disruptions will improve health equity and benefit populations in profound ways that haven’t yet been fully quantified5,12 while also delivering evidence based economic dividends. For example, not exceeding 1.5°C of global warming could return $264tn-$610tn (£196tn-£450tn; €210tn-€500tn) in economic rewards by 2100.7

Yet data and science alone are not enough to motivate change.19 The message, messenger, and method are critical components, and a global medical community united around climate change can be the missing ingredient needed to catalyse action.10,20 Only 25% of a population is needed to change societal norms,21 and behavioural and social scientists can serve as critical experts. Health professionals are trusted sources20 that exist in every corner of the world to personalise the health benefits of climate interventions. These are powerful tools to combat politicisation and misinformation.19

Both the covid-19 pandemic and climate change bind the world—and the health community—together in a shared fate and common destiny. The health community must recognise this connectedness and harness its collective power. Together, we can galvanise the political will required to finally fill the prescription for better health and equity through climate action.

[Source: BMJ, 15 Dec 2020]

German court cases lead to decline in air pollution

Air pollution has fallen twice as steeply in German cities where air quality litigation has been taken, new analysis has shown. 

Consumer affairs and environmental experts at Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH) have taken litigation in 40 German cities over the consistently dangerous levels of air pollution. 

DUH and ClientEarth took part in legal battles across Germany when the country’s highest court confirmed that diesel restrictions were legally necessary. 

Following this, diesel restrictions were imposed in many major German cities. 

Between 2018 and 2019 alone, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels reduced by an average of 4.2µg/m³ in cities where air quality litigation has been undertaken, whereas, in cities where no action was taken, the average reduction stands at just 2.1µg/m³.

Dorothee Saar, head of transport and air quality at DUH said: ‘People are finally breathing cleaner air – legal action works. We see the potential for NO2 to meet legal limits in every German town by 2021.

‘Politicians and the diesel industry have pushed against us at every stage, just for working towards a reality where people actually get to breathe clean air.

‘In the end, the court rulings and these latest findings say it all: our litigation was justified and successful. We must hold our leaders to account when our health is on the line.’

ClientEarth lawyer Ugo Taddei added: ‘The Covid-19 pandemic makes clear how important it is to clean up the air in accordance with the law, to avoid increasing the burden on those with poor health. But while the improvement in German air quality is encouraging, there is a risk Covid-19 could buck this trend.

‘Amid the pandemic, people are abandoning public transport in favour of private vehicles. This shift worsens pollution and creates more dangerous conditions for cyclists and pedestrians. This is why we need concrete measures in place: we need to get the most polluting vehicles out of the centres of our towns and cities.’

[Source: Air Quality News]

SARS-CoV-2 concentrations and virus-laden aerosol size distributions in outdoor air in north and south of Italy


The COVID-19 disease spread at different rates in the different countries and in different regions of the same country, as happened in Italy. Transmission by contact or at close range due to large respiratory droplets is widely accepted, however, the role of airborne transmission due to small respiratory droplets emitted by infected individuals (also asymptomatic) is controversial. It was suggested that outdoor airborne transmission could play a role in determining the differences observed in the spread rate. Concentrations of virus-laden aerosol are still poorly known and contrasting results are reported, especially for outdoor environments. Here we investigated outdoor concentrations and size distributions of virus-laden aerosol simultaneously collected during the pandemic, in May 2020, in northern (Veneto) and southern (Apulia) regions of Italy. The two regions exhibited significantly different prevalence of COVID-19. Genetic material of SARS-CoV-2 (RNA) was determined, using both real time RT-PCR and ddPCR, in air samples collected using PM10 samplers and cascade impactors able to separate 12 size ranges from nanoparticles (diameter D<0.056 μm) up to coarse particles (D>18 μm). Air samples tested negative for the presence of SARS-CoV-2 at both sites, viral particles concentrations were <0.8 copies m-3 in PM10 and <0.4 copies m-3 in each size range investigated. Outdoor air in residential and urban areas was generally not infectious and safe for the public in both northern and southern Italy, with the possible exclusion of very crowded sites. Therefore, it is likely that outdoor airborne transmission does not explain the difference in the spread of COVID-19 observed in the two Italian regions.

[Source: Science Direct, 13 Nov 2020]

Reserve Bank Governor says NZ needs broad transformational change to address risks of climate change

In a speech delivered to the Pacific Ocean Pacific Climate Conference, Mr Orr reflected on the need for transformational change, as well as a collective and urgent response to climate risks.

“There’s a lot to do and we are late in leaving port. Climate change is a risk that requires a collective response. Grounding a response in our collective knowledge, data and expertise will strengthen and compound the effects of our actions.”

Like many other central banks and regulators, the Reserve Bank sees climate change as a key risk to the financial stability underpinning the economy.

The Reserve Bank developed a climate change strategy in 2018 to integrate climate considerations across its work. Significant progress has been made by the Bank since then including:

  • Reporting its own verified carbon footprint;
  • Building capability to understand climate-related risks in the sectors we regulate;
  • Training its supervisors in climate-related risks and integrating climate more intensively into our approach;
  • Raising awareness of climate-related risks to financial stability through external engagements and our biannual Financial Stability Reports; and
  • Leading through experience and collaboration with its involvement in the Network for Greening the Financial System (NGFS), Sustainable Insurance Forum (SIF), and leading the Council of Financial Regulators’ (CoFR) Climate work stream.

Mr Orr welcomed developments towards mandatory climate-related financial disclosures.

[Source: Reserve Bank]