Friday, February 1, 2013

Why don't we give pollution equal time?

The toll
From The New York Times 'Green Blog' on Tuesday, January 29:
Dense smog shrouds eastern China for the second time in about two weeks, forcing airlines to cancel flights and factories to shut down temporarily. Meanwhile, nearly 32,000 heed an online call by a real estate tycoon to declare their support for adoption of a clean air act. [Associated Press, Wall Street Journal]
Tianaman Square, Jan 29, 2013 (Source: Washington Post)
This is bad enough in and of itself, and whether or not a clean air act will come to China anytime soon is an interesting question, but the recent reports of the extremely high levels of micro particles in the air in Beijing made us wonder about air pollution generally. It's bad in China this month, but can the rest of us feel smugly at ease about the air we are breathing?

A view of the Oriental Pearl TV tower and downtown Shanghai. Photograph: Carlos Barria/Reuters; The Guardian
A piece in the February Smithsonian tells us that air pollution has been a problem since ancient Rome.  Ice cores from Greenland indicate the presence of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere 2000 years ago. CĂ©lia Sapart and colleagues from the Netherlands found methane in the ice at times that indicated to them that something other than simple warming was responsible. 
That “something else” turned out to be human activity, notably metallurgy and large-scale agriculture starting around 100 B.C. The ancient Romans kept domesticated livestock—cows, sheep and goats—which excrete methane gas, a byproduct of digestion. Around the same time, in China, the Han dynasty expanded its rice fields, which harbor methane-producing bacteria. Also, blacksmiths in both empires produced methane gas when they burned wood to fashion metal weapons. After those civilizations declined, emissions briefly decreased.
Whether there were health consequences is another question.  But it is reasonable to surmise that there would have been.

A comparative risk assessment of disease and injury burdens around the world published (free registration required) in The Lancet in December describes the increase in non-communicable diseases across much of the world, much of it due to pollution.
Worldwide, the contribution of different risk factors to disease burden has changed substantially, with a shift away from risks for communicable diseases in children towards those for non-communicable diseases in adults. These changes are related to the ageing population, decreased mortality among children younger than 5 years, changes in cause-of-death composition, and changes in risk factor exposures. New evidence has led to changes in the magnitude of key risks including unimproved water and sanitation, vitamin A and zinc deficiencies, and ambient particulate matter pollution.
 A story in The Guardian on Jan 17 reports:
In the past few months there have been acute air pollution incidents reported in Bangladesh, Iran, Afghanistan, Nepal, and Pakistan. In Tehran, the desperate authorities had to close all public offices, schools, universities and banks twice in the last two months; In Nepal the army has had to give up its cars and in Kabul it has been reported that there are now more deaths as a result of air and water pollution than from conflict.
An estimated 4500 pollution-related deaths occur in Tehran each year.

Researchers at the University of Hong Kong estimate 3000 air pollution related deaths per year, with
151,300 hospitalizations for pollution-related illnesses. Not surprisingly, lower income groups in the city suffered from a higher death rate than others, with the same amount of pollution -- in this instance, an increase of 10 microgram in pollutants -- causing a greater risk to the unemployed, poorly educated or those with lower income.  

Deaths from specific sources have been estimated as well.  Estimates of annual deaths from coal-based electricity use, with total annual fossil fuel-based electricity deaths in brackets, follow (source).  Of course, it's coal burning that is responsible for most of the air pollution in China.  China consumes almost as much as the rest of the world combined (47% of total coal consumption/HT DKT, Herald Tribune).
  • 170,000 [283,000] (the World)
  • 11,000 [13,000] (India) 
  • 47,000 [47,500] (China)
  • 49,000 [72,000] (the US)
  • 3,400 [6,900] (the UK)
  • 4,900 [5,400] (Australia)
  • 2,700 [3,800](Canada) as compared to 
  • 110 [360] (heavily renewable-based New Zealand)
Two million deaths a year are attributed to pollution from indoor cookstove fires, according to the WHO, and reported by PBS here (link includes an excellent video on cookstoves in India being replaced with less polluting fire sources) and in Science.  Cookstove fires also cause global warming, so replacing this heat source with something more sustainable would be beneficial in multiple ways.

Rural cookstove in India (Wikimedia)

A First World problem too
But of course pollution is not just a problem of poor countries. Rich countries certainly cause enough of it, and we feel the consequences.  We have our Clean Air Acts, but there are constant pressures to loosen restrictions, and even where regulations are tight, a certain number of pollution-related deaths are built into the cost-benefit equation.  Literally, they are the cost of doing business. 

A report by the European environment agency found that almost one third of Europe's city dwellers are exposed to particulate concentrations above EU legal limits and 90-95% to concentrations of smaller and even more deadly PM2.5 particulates (those smaller than 2.5 microns, which not only get into the lungs but are small enough to get into the bloodstream from the lungs, as well). If nothing is done to improve it, the EU expects to see 200,000 premature deaths a year in Europe by 2020 due to particle emissions alone.  This isn't counting ozone pollution or any other source. 

In a recent "Material World" program on BBC Radio 4, the presenter, Quentin Cooper, said that estimates of deaths due to air pollution in the UK are upwards of 29,000. That's not an insignificant figure!  And yet, we rarely hear about these, nor is there the kind of public outcry to prevent these deaths that there is for, say, deaths that may have a genetic cause.  Why not?

For one thing, it's difficult to attribute a specific death, or cause of death, to pollution.  There's a lot of estimating and second-guessing going on.  A study published in 1994, e.g., compared causes of death from days when particulate matter in the air was high in the US between 1973 and 1980 with causes of death during air pollution crises earlier in the century, when the upswing in deaths were pretty clearly due to pollution, to determine whether it was reasonable to conclude that pollution was the cause of excess deaths during the days with high particulate matter.

They found an excess of deaths from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and pneumonia, heart disease and stroke, in keeping with mortality statistics from London in 1952, say, and conclude that yes, these deaths can be attributed to pollution.  And that doesn't count all the cancers that may have their genesis in exposure to polluted air or water or soil. Nor, possible birth defects that result, as James Fallows writes in The Atlantic with respect to increasing birth defects in China, though again it's very hard to attribute cause to such outcomes. So, pollution-related health statistics are shaky at best.  And, there is often vested interest in inflating or deflating them, and that's easy to do since they are basically educated guesses anyway.  Everyone agrees pollution has health affects, but not the extent to which it does.

For another thing, to cut down or eliminate health-related consequences of pollution would require us all to do just what we're refusing to do to slow down global warming -- drive less, fly less, consume less, live in smaller houses and so forth.  A report in 2007 estimated that 40% of deaths worldwide are due to air, water and soil pollution. You can argue with that percentage if you want to, but that's not really the point.  The point is that doing something about these deaths, whatever the actual number, is a threat to business as usual, including the profits for the wealthy and the jobs for the employees, and hence to our way of life.  Such threats are naturally going to be resisted, as if the health threat is less than the societal benefits of profits and employment.

Guess it's a lot easier to pour money and energy into genetics, and believe in miracle cures.  And put on our gas masks.


insolemexumbra said...

Good post. Regarding health, I lived in downtown Louisville for a couple of years, a small town admittedly, but even just the daily walks to and from work gave me endless sinus infections. I'd arrive home and my sinuses would be raw from all the car exhaust. I live in the county now and the sinuses have stopped being such a problem.

I try to do some things to keep a lower carbon footprint but I really need to do more. For one, my partner loves big houses; hoping the next one won't be as spacious. Wouldn't it be nice if it were easier to be green?

Ken Weiss said...

This may only be the tip of things. Even here in State College, there can be pollution. And what about light pollution? We are biologically programmed to respond to light cycles, and who knows what kinds of effects, on us all or on some susceptible genotypes, irregular light exposure leads o.

insolemexumbra said...

There are just so many ways it seems that life has changed over the very recent past. Industry and technology have made our modern environments relatively unrecognizable. There's so much that we're spewing into our environments, lord knows what all we're changing.