We consume, ergo we pollute!

So much is said about the appalling air pollution in China, how its citizens suffer and how only the rich can take adequate protective measures. But so little has been said about how we may all be linked to this pollution, even if we have never set foot in China.

Researchers from Tsinghua University, University of California and other institutions have recently published a paper with very interesting data on how we all bear the brunt of air pollution in China and how pollutants aided by global air currents reach neighboring countries  and affect the health even of those who leave in distant territories. This gives us an idea of the uncontrollable and controllable components of air pollution.

This research looked at PM2.5 (fine particulate matter) in 13 regions across 228 countries, and found that 12% of premature deaths (410,000) globally result from pollutants emitted in a different country, but which are often moved around by global wind conditions. While this result shows us how difficult it is to run away from air pollution that sees no real borders, it definitely makes us see the relevance of monitoring air quality regardless of how far we live from sources of pollution.

At the same time, this study explains how we all bear the brunt of air pollution in China and other countries of Asia. In fact, 90% of air pollution-related global mortality comes from power stations, airplanes, shipping and factories. All elements that constitute global trade. The ever-expanding nature of markets have made cheap products that flood western markets, the basis of a considerable amount of pollution in the East: China, India, Indonesia etc.

Cheap products are produced in Asian countries for a number of reasons – cheap labor and a lack of environmental regulations, which means that the process of production is highly contaminated and contributes to air pollution not to mention water or soil contamination. In addition, these products are produced far away from the place of their consumption so shipping and airplanes need to be heavily used to freight them to their end users.

Dr Qiang Zhang, one of the researchers, revealed that in 2007 consumption in the United States and Western Europe was tied to 110,000 premature deaths in China. In fact, the minute we buy cheap products, we are unconsciously increasing our share in air pollution.

“If the cost of imported products is lower because of less stringent air pollution controls in the regions where they are produced, then the consumer savings may come at the expense of lives lost elsewhere,”

This is why their main message is:

“We need to move our lifestyles away from cheap and wasteful,” Qiang Zhang

This research clearly shows the need to measure air quality and act to protect ourselves, regardless of how far we live from the source of pollution. And secondly, makes us understand how our consumption patterns can make a difference in the air quality suffered in other regions of the world.

Sources:
The Guardian – Thousands of pollution deaths worldwide linked to western consumers
HuffPost – Air Pollution Links People Thousands Of Miles Apart In Deadly Ways
The Economist – Airborne particles cause more than 3m early deaths a year
Nature – Transboundary health impacts of transported global air pollution and international trade

…And now breast cancer?

There has been an intense debate over the possible link between breast cancer and air pollution. FIGO- the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics highlighted the discovery of a link between air pollution and breast cancer following an article published in the Breast Cancer Journal on the results of research conducted by the University of Florida. This was reported by mainstream media as an alarming call to women living in areas with high air pollution.

Do not panic!

But there is no need to panic, it’s very important to be cautious with scientific results. In fact, many organizations like Cancer Research-UK, BreastCancer and others jumped to clarify that finding a link does not mean that air pollution causes breast cancer. Two things can be highly correlated without implying causation.

We know and we’ve talked about how pervasive air pollution is in our bodies, affecting our lungs, circulation, diabetes, skin and many more. The link between air pollution and lung cancer is very well researched, many research teams have worked on this subject for decades and have found how it happens and why. All the other links of air pollution to diseases are still in the very beginning of compiling research results and while it is one thing to link air pollution with skin problems, it is another step entirely to link it with a life-threatening disease like breast cancer.

Be cautious and understand the risks

We should not panic, but we should know the extent of current research on this matter. The latest research was conducted by the University of Florida, US, and looked at the link between breast density and air pollution. They found that women living in areas with high pollution had denser breast tissue. Women with dense breast tissue are up to six times more likely to develop some form of breast cancer.

In 2010, another study by the Research Institute of the MUHC, McGill University and Université de Montreal also showed a link. This study mapped air pollution against breast cancer patients and found that women living near areas with higher levels of pollution were twice as likely to develop breast cancer than the rest. However, Dr Goldberg, a researcher at The RI MUHC said:

“For example, we don’t know how much the women in the study were exposed to pollution while at home or at work, because that would depend on their daily patterns of activity, how much time they spend outdoors and so on”

In the case of this study, what is interesting is that the motivation to study the link between air pollution and breast cancer was to try to understand why cancer rates were going up in general / in these particular high pollution areas. The results showed that it could be air pollution but it may well be some other factor that the study could not control. In fact, the researchers called for more research on this subject and more research on the biological explanation behind this possible link.

Before more scientific evidence is gathered, we should make it a habit to know the quality of the air we breathe and take actions to improve the quality of the air we are exposed to, both indoors and outdoors!

Key steps to ensure office safety

Be air safe in your business

Around the world the pandemic has taken many forms. Some are working from home while others have to work in their offices. Although offices may have less people to ensure social distancing, managers and office space administrators should still take crucial steps to protect their staff. The past months of increased information about how COVID-19 spreads silently, has opened our eyes about the relevance of clean air and social practices in protecting us.

Although, outdoors is the ideal place to gather for safety purposes, offices, and shops can also minimize risk and have employees back in business with their safety as their first priority.

The following steps require to re-think the office with airflow safety in mind.  We need to re-think the way we use office space and even office supplies. Understanding that clean air and clean surfaces are the ultimate goal to staff safety. A new type of health and safety plan is required focusing on: 1) infrastructure maintenance, 2) re-thinking the way we use the space, and 3) ensuring all staff members are involved in the process and understand the need for a change in the way we work and the way we safely socialize.

Start by analyzing the infrastructure and how your devices can ensure the air in the premises is safe. The Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) system needs to have the appropriate filters and they should be maintained regularly. Preferably HEPA filters should be used. If possible, outdoor air circulation should be increased; and airflow supply should be re-examined. Similarly, exhaust fans in restrooms are to be checked for performance and encourage their use at all times. This should be coupled with enhancing cleaning and disinfection at all times. Have a close look at the quality of the indoor air, it will make a difference.

Then move to conduct a hazard assessment with the COVID-19 thinking cap. Identifying areas where COVID 19 transmission could happen and how to change them. For example, the meeting rooms, cafeteria, break rooms, waiting areas and many more. This will result in necessary modifications of workstation distancing, or the use of shields to physically separate employees in all areas.  And, wherever physical barriers are not possible, visual cues on the floor can help employees distance themselves. Even shifts staggering will be crucial. Also, re-think best options for high-touch communal items such as coffee pot, microwave etc.

Last but not least, develop a communication plan to adequately convey health safety messages and changes in space usage to employees. Set a protocol for employees to know when to stay home, how to work from home when they have symptoms, or when a family member has symptoms. And if possible, provide that flexibility to work from home. Use signage to remind people of key actions to reduce transmission.

Keep in mind, indoor air quality is key to employees’ health and safety!

When legal action meets air quality

A few years ago, a French woman launched a law suit against the French government for failing to protect her from air pollution. More precisely, for ‘culpable incompetence’ by not having a heavy hand against polluters and not taking strong preventive measures. She is asthmatic, 56 years old and a yoga teacher that suffers gravely from every air pollution spike. She is the first plaintiff in France but her lawyer says there are about 30 more in Paris, Lille and Lyon who are planning legal action!

Are law suits the new way to push for better air quality?

In fact, we know of several examples in Europe where legal action is being used to push governments for better air quality. In April 2015, the UK legal NGO ClientEarth won a Supreme Court ruling against the UK government. The ministers were ordered to design a plan to ‘bring pollution down within legal limits as soon as possible’.  The new plan was presented in 2016 but the government was slammed once more by another legal battle won by ClientEarth at the High Court.

“The government’s new plans to tackle air pollution are woefully inadequate and won’t achieve legal limits for years to come,” said ClientEarth lawyer Alan Andrews to The Guardian “The longer they are allowed to dither and delay, the more people will suffer from serious illness or an early death.”

“There is clear consensus that the government’s plans are wholly inadequate to address this public health crisis,” said Kerry McCarthy, Labour’s shadow environment secretary. “It should not take legal action to force the environment secretary to take urgent action and help save lives.”

In September 2016 in Prague, the Vlasta Coalition NGO lodged a law suit against the local ministry’s plan to tackle air pollution. Three individuals have joined the law suit from various parts of the country with their claims. Similarly, The European Commission threatened legal action against France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK for failing to protect their citizens from air pollution. ClientEarth is in fact partnering with local NGOs to launch cases across Europe against local and national governments. The first one to appear is legal action against Lombardy – a region in the north of Italy with Milan in the Centre of it.

More data on air pollution and more knowledge about its ill health effects will provide the basis for citizens to demand their rights and for governments to better understand how to manage policies to improve air quality.

Crazy for a cruise holiday? Let’s talk air quality

A cruise is one of the most sought-after holiday destinations. The Caribbean, Mediterranean, Alaska, northern Europe and some areas in Asia have the largest array of Cruises with lavish restaurants and what seems like a relaxing holiday in the middle of nature but with all the conveniences of a touristy city on board. Worldwide a total of 24.2 million passengers enjoy cruises every year.

Unfortunately for cruise holiday goers, reports conducted by journalists in France and in the UK have shown that fine particulate matter (known as PM2.5 and PM 10) is particularly high on these cruise destinations.

Cruise ships are important sources of air pollution impacting the routes they cover and the cities in which they dock. One cruise ship emits the same amount of carbon dioxide as one million cars per day. We might think that this is only the trail left by the cruise, but in fact it affects also the people on the cruise. Journalists measured the air quality on the main deck and found that the concentration of fine particles was twice as high as the concentration in London’s Picadilly Circus and similar to the measurements in New Delhi, all coming from the same ship’s funnels.

Why?

Cruises use residual fuel of very low quality, it’s the fuel left after the refined fuel for cars has been extracted.  But it’s cheap and maritime global regulation is limited and difficult to enforce. Nonetheless, the International Maritime Organization has fixed  the 1st January 2020 as the date for all passenger ships to use fuel with maximum 0.5% lead content, it is now 3 times that level at 1.5%.

All cruise goers and communities living in the ports where these cruise ships dock have the right to know what they breathe. More regulation is essential, but constant monitoring on-board and off-board is essential to reassure users and communities of the air quality they are exposed to.

Meo’s air quality monitor- measures PM2.5 and PM10.

Let’s measure and take control of the air we breathe!

Sources:
Independent – Air quality on cruise ship deck ‘worse than world’s most polluted cities’, investigation finds
LaProvence – Le souffle pollué des géants des mers en Méditerranée

Architecture and Air Pollution

Architecture can have a positive or negative impact on a building’s energy efficiency. But can it effectively improve air quality?

China started recently the construction of Liuzhou Forest City, which is expected to be a satellite neighborhood completed by 2020 connected to the main city by rail. It is a wild reminder of the importance of architecture in controlling air quality in our living environments. This city is specifically designed to fight air pollution by extensive use of vegetation throughout the building façade. The design by Stefano Boeri Architetti follows the experience of their two buildings inaugurated in Milan 2014: Bosco Verticale. In China, 1 million plants and 40,000 trees planted all over the project will absorb 1,000 tons of carbon dioxide and 57 tons of other pollutants per year.

According to the architecture firm: “The diffusion of plants, not only in the parks and gardens or along the streets, but also over building facades, will allow the energy self-sufficient city to contribute to improve the air quality (absorbing both CO2 and fine dust of 57 tons per year), to decrease the average air temperature, to create noise barriers and to improve the biodiversity of living species, generating the habitat for birds, insects and small animals that inhabit the Liuzhou territory,”

The idea to control air quality through architecture is not new. For decades, urban planners have worked and invested in bicycle paths, innovative transportation programmes, and looked into how to improve the cities’ walkability. All features with the objective of reducing emissions from cars and transportation. However, the role of the physical buildings themselves in improving air quality is picking up with many novel ideas in the past decades.

A few interesting and encouraging examples out there include 1. Mexico City, the Manuel Gea Gonzalez Hospital has an external structure that is coated with titanium dioxide. This coating -Provolste360e- helps break down pollutants when exposed to light by releasing free-radicals. Tiles coated with this substance can be used on any surface in the city and repurpose old façades. 2. Paris where the Musee Quay Branly with its living wall that absorbs carbon dioxide and emits oxygen. Yet another example is the Congress Gateway Towers in Chicago, which have an air filtration system to absorb CO2, which then feeds growing algae and is processed into biofuels to provide clean energy for the building.

There are also some smaller initiatives as standalone solutions: the Dan Rosengaarde Smog Free Tower, a smog sucking vacuum tower already installed in Beijing; and CityTree, the ultra tech green wall that can be displayed as urban furniture to help control air pollution.

Architecture has a lot to offer to control air quality, and ideas are sprouting in many directions.

They key to their use on a larger scale is to show their effectiveness by monitoring how air quality is improved following these various initiatives.

MONITOR, ACT AND TAKE CONTROL OF THE AIR QUALITY THAT MATTERS TO YOU!

Economic growth vs. Environmental policies?

This week we have a thought provoking discussion: environmental policy vs. economic growth. This has been at the heart of decisions in the last year with regards to the Paris Agreement, for sure the excuse of many developing nations to delay adoption of environmental policies. In fact, we are constantly debating about the apparent conflict between economic development and environmental protection policies.

The last 50 years have seen rapid urbanization process in many countries, with cities offering more economic opportunities and rural areas being left for the environmentalists and hard labour. Cities grow, innovation happens and with that pollution levels rise, car convenience increases emissions, electricity needs increased emissions and consumerism increases emissions even further. In this picture, cities as centers for growth and innovation should be discouraged if we want to control air pollution.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon  published a research on the link between economic development, urbanization and pollution.

Interestingly enough, the research found that urbanization is the result of a higher quality of life, and cities are more efficient at delivering services such as electricity. The study found that cities have more pollution but pollution per capita is lower in cities than out of them, and environmental policy does mitigate how emissions increase when the population of a city increases. The study in US counties showed that metropolitan GDP and personal income scaled with population size and this was regardless of environmental policies. So, environmental policies did not have a negative effect in economic development in cities, they in fact reduced drastically the environmental damage and pushed for cleaner production practices hence fueling green innovation.

Environmental protection can only make things better for all! Let’s take action and push innovation to cleaner ways of achieving economic growth!

Monitor air quality, Act to breathe cleaner, Enjoy the benefits!

Better Air Quality is the Smart City Challenge

Cities across the globe are facing increasing levels of air pollution. Particles so small that we cannot see and gases at ground level, penetrate our bodies affecting us in many ways: cardiovascular diseases, chronic respiratory illnesses, strokes, heart attacks, asthma and many more are all common effects of air pollution.

What can cities do?

WHO’s initiative ‘Breathe Life 2030’ calls for cities to take action in the following areas to reduce air pollution:

  • TRANSPORT: does your city have a solid transport system? Are car emissions controlled? Think about…
  • Walking and Cycling paths
  • Efficient mass transport
  • Controlled emission standards
  • Soot-free vehicles

Cities that transform into pedestrian & cycle-friendly and with efficient mass transit systems and controlled emissions generate less pollution and are more liveable.

  • ENERGY SUPPLY: Cities are big energy consumers, striving for cleaner energy production is key. Think about…
    • Renewable power supply
    • Diesel replacement

Cleaner energy production will impact positively the air quality in that given city.

  • WASTE: proper landfill management can decrease the emission of gases.
  • INDUSTRY: industries in and around cities should be strictly controlled for their emissions.
  • AGRICULTURE: agricultural areas around cities should be careful with irrigation, reduce open burning and manure management to control emission of gases and particulate matter affecting nearby cities.
  • HOUSEHOLD: households should be helped to make sure they use low-emission stoves and fuels, improved lighting and passive building design.

However, the first step is always to understand local air pollution, how does it build up in a city, when and how does it clear up. Each city has different patterns of producing air pollution and different natural ways of dispersing it. Understanding how this interaction happens is essential for any city to take steps to improve air quality.

Monitor, monitor, monitor!

Nowadays cities have a handful of high-end air quality monitoring stations that provide a broad view of air quality in any given city. This information may also be compared or complemented with satellite images. But both options provide general information. In real time, most cities cannot precisely say the pollution levels at block level or intersection level. This is a limitation to understanding local air pollution and to taking precise local measures to improve air quality or to measuring the effectiveness of any given measure.

Be a smart city, track outdoor air quality with meo air analytics: have multiple data points, understand local air pollution and find data oriented solutions!

Sources:
BREATHELIFE – A global campaign for clean air