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Lack of information related to pollution exposure key issue for low-income households

A lack of information is an often overlooked but important cause of pollution exposure among low-income households or communities of color, according to University of Michigan researchers.

The researchers say the disproportionate exposure of pollution on those vulnerable groups is widely studied and known, as are such causes as income inequality, discrimination and the decision of industries to locate factories in places where their costs are lowest. Still, they find limited or missing information about pollution also affects those groups or communities to a greater degree than other segments of the population—with far less attention paid to what this means from an environmental justice standpoint.

“Society frequently fails to recognize just how much pollution people are exposed to and how much it affects their health,” said Catherine Hausman, an associate professor at the Ford School of Public Policy who co-authored the study with Samuel Stolper, an environmental and energy economist with U-M’s School for Environment and Sustainability. “This failure disproportionately hurts low-income communities, and it’s one of the many reasons that the current push for environmental justice is important.”

The researchers developed a model of the housing decision near a source of pollution when air quality isn’t known. Their goal was to shed light on how information failures affect pollution exposure and household well-being—focusing on how those impacts differ across income levels.

They concur with common findings that low-income households are exposed to more pollution, but their work also shows that those households are exposed to more hidden pollution and experience greater damages from a lack of information. The latter two, more novel findings occur because households sort according to known pollution, which is positively correlated with hidden pollution because of the way it dissipates, the study says.

Hidden pollution is more challenging, researchers say, precisely because of its intangibility: Pollution isn’t always visible or odor-producing. What’s more, government air-quality monitoring is sparse and regulators rely on self-reporting for certain emissions—and some companies have been prosecuted for tampering with equipment or obscuring pollution levels.

Beyond what it reveals about pollution exposure, Hausman and her colleagues say hidden factors and the lack of information about them could create income-based or racial disparities in other contexts, such as climate change or groundwater sources.

As far as recommendations, the study notes a Biden administration order that calls for creating new data tools and communication plans for dealing with environmental injustices. Among other things, the order directs environmental officials to create a community notification program to provide real-time data to the public on pollution, including emissions and toxins.

Such policies are valuable and attainable because they are less costly and politically challenging to implement, but the researchers caution they alone aren’t sufficient for full equity.

The study was published in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management.

Lack of information related to pollution exposure key issue for low-income households
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Air pollution significantly reduces pollination by confusing butterflies and bees

Common air pollutants from both urban and rural environments may be reducing the pollinating abilities of insects by preventing them from sniffing out the crops and wildflowers that depend on them, new research has shown.

Scientists from the University of Reading, the UK Center for Ecology & Hydrology, and the University of Birmingham found that there were up to 70% fewer pollinators, up to 90% fewer flower visits and an overall pollination reduction of up to 31% in test plants when common ground-level air pollutants, including diesel exhaust pollutants and ozone, were present.

The study, published in the journal Environmental Pollution, is the first to observe a negative impact of common air pollutants on pollination in the natural environment. The theory is that the pollutants react with and change the scents of flowers, making them harder to find.

Dr. Robbie Girling, Associate Professor in Agroecology at the University of Reading, who led the project, said: “We knew from our previous lab studies that diesel exhaust can have negative effects on insect pollinators, but the impacts we found in the field were much more dramatic than we had expected.”

Dr. James Ryalls, a Leverhulme Trust Research Fellow at the University of Reading, who conducted the study, said: “The findings are worrying because these pollutants are commonly found in the air many of us breathe every day. We know that these pollutants are bad for our health, and the significant reductions we saw in pollinator numbers and activity shows that there are also clear implications for the natural ecosystems we depend on.”

Previous laboratory studies by members of the Reading team have shown that diesel fumes can alter floral odors. This work suggested that pollution could contribute to the ongoing declines in pollinating insects, by making it harder for them to locate their food—pollen and nectar.

The impact this phenomenon has in nature, where insects provide pollination of important food crops and native wildflowers is less well understood, so this new study aimed to gather evidence to investigate how air pollution affects different pollinating insect species, some of which rely on scent more than others.

The study, funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, used a purpose-built fumigation facility to regulate levels of nitrogen oxides (NOx) – present in diesel exhaust fumes—and ozone in an open field environment. They then observed the effects these pollutants had on the pollination of black mustard plants by free-flying, locally-occurring pollinating insects over the course of two summer field seasons.

They used pollution concentrations well below maximum average levels—equating to 40-50% of the limits currently defined by US law as safe for the environment.

This pales in comparison with the far higher levels of pollution that occur around the world due to breaches of regulations. For example, outside of London, a 2019 analysis showed illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide were recorded in local authorities in large areas of northern England, including Cheshire and Gateshead, and south England, including Wiltshire, Chichester and rural areas such as the New Forest.

Observations revealed there were 62-70% fewer pollinator visits to the plants located in polluted air. This reduction was seen in seven pollinator groups, particularly bees, moths, hoverflies and butterflies. There were also 83-90% fewer flower visits by these insects, and ultimately a 14-31% reduction in pollination, based on seed yield and other factors.

Such findings could have wide ranging implications because insect pollination delivers hundreds of billions of pounds worth of economic value every year. It supports around 8% of the total value of agricultural food production worldwide, and 70% of all crop species, including apples, strawberries and cocoa, rely on it.

This research is part of continuing studies into the effects of air pollution on insect health and their interactions with the environment by researchers at the University of Reading.

Dr. Christian Pfrang, Reader in Atmospheric Science at the University of Birmingham and a co-author on the study, said: “This truly cross-disciplinary work demonstrated very clearly how atmospheric pollutants negatively impact on pollination with direct consequences for food production as well as the resilience of our natural environment.”

Air pollution significantly reduces pollination by confusing butterflies and bees
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Lowering air pollution reduces risk for dementia in older women, study finds

Long-term improvement in air quality lowers the risk for dementia in older women, a study published Monday by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found.

Large reductions in air pollution reduce the likelihood women ages 74 to 92 years will develop dementia, or memory loss and declines in brain function, as they age by up to 20%, the data showed.

The decline in dementia risk for women in this group associated with boosts in air quality was equivalent to taking nearly 2 1/2 years off of their age, the researchers said.

“Our findings strengthen the evidence that high levels of air pollution can harm our brain, and that reducing the exposure may promote healthier brain aging in older women,” study co-author Diana Younan told UPI in an email.

“These toxic pollutants cause inflammation in the lungs and blood that may be harmful to the aging brains, resulting in altered brain function,” said Younan, an observational research manager at drug-maker Amgen, who was at the University of Southern California at the time of the study.

The findings are based on an analysis of the effects of exposure to high levels of fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, and nitrogen dioxide in women from across the United States, Younan and her colleagues said.

PM2.5 is a mixture of microscopic solid substances and liquid droplets found in the air, including dust, dirt, soot and smoke, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Nitrogen dioxide is found in exhaust from motor vehicles, as well as emissions from the combustion of coal, oil or natural gas and various industrial sources, the agency says.

An estimated 90% of the global population lives in regions with PM2.5 and nitrogen dioxide levels above the thresholds for human health established by the World Health Organization, the international body estimates.

In a study published in November, researchers in China found that exposure to high levels of air pollution increases a person’s risk for depression and adversely affects brain function.

A separate study published in August indicated that small increase in exposure to fine particle air pollution in Seattle increase local residents’ risk for dementia by 16%.

In addition, fine particulate matter such as PM2.5 has been linked with up to 4 million early deaths worldwide annually and has been described as “the greatest threat to human health.”

For this study, Younan and her colleagues assessed the cognitive, or brain, function of 2,239 women in the United States annually between 2008 and 2018, using standard tests.

None of the women in the study had been diagnosed with dementia at the start of the research, Younan and her colleagues said.

Participants’ performance on the tests was cross-referenced against changes in yearly average concentrations of outdoor air pollution for the regions in which they lived over a 15-year period, the researchers said.

Of the participants, 398, or 18%, developed dementia over the course of the study period, the researchers said.

Participants residing in locations that experienced larger reductions in PM2.5 and nitrogen dioxide had a lower risk for dementia than those living in regions that saw less air quality improvement, the data showed.

Those living in areas that saw PM2.5 and nitrogen dioxide levels in the air reduced by roughly 20% had a 20% lower risk for dementia, according to the researchers.

“The health benefits seen in our study were a result of decreasing levels of both PM2.5 and nitrogen dioxide across the U.S., which were likely due to national policies and strategies aimed at regulating pollution,” Younan said.

“We think that continuing these regulatory efforts are important for improving brain health of older women,” she said.

Lowering air pollution reduces risk for dementia in older women, study finds –
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Ozone pollution: Gas causes $63 billion damage per year to East Asian crops

Rising levels of ground-level ozone in China and nearby countries are having a big effect on the yields of staple crops such as wheat, rice and maize

Increasing concentrations of ground-level ozone in East Asia are causing ever more damage to crops. The relative fall in yields of wheat, rice and maize in China, Japan and South Korea is costing $63 billion a year, according to Zhaozhong Feng at the Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology in China and his colleagues.

Surface ozone concentrations in China have been rising by around 5 per cent a year, says Feng. “Such a fast increase of surface ozone has increased the ozone threat to crop yields,” he says.

Ozone is a highly reactive gas. Its presence in the stratosphere is beneficial as it blocks dangerous ultraviolet light, but ground-level ozone harms plants and animals.

Surface ozone forms when nitrogen oxides (NOx) react with volatile organic compounds in the presence of sunlight. Surface ozone levels have increased in many regions worldwide because of NOx pollution, mainly from vehicles. Crop yields have also generally risen due to improved methods and varieties, but they would be even higher without ozone.

Based on measurements from 3000 sites in China, Japan and South Korea, Feng’s team estimates that ozone pollution is causing relative yield losses of 33 per cent for wheat, 23 per cent for rice and 9 per cent for maize.

This is nearly double estimates from 2016. The increase is partly because ozone levels are now higher and partly because the researchers calculate that ozone does more damage than previously thought, says Feng.

The estimate of $63 billion-worth of crop losses is plausible, says Nigel Bell at Imperial College London. The huge impact of surface ozone has slowly been becoming clear, he says. “It’s something that gradually crept up on us.”

Because farming is one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions and continued land clearance for farms is causing habitat loss, the findings mean that ozone pollution is also indirectly leading to global warming and biodiversity loss. But the relationship between ozone and other air pollutants is complex, making it hard to tackle the problem in the short term.

One of the reasons ozone levels are rising in China is due to falling levels of particulate pollution, says Feng. Particulates reduce ozone by blocking sunlight and by inhibiting the chemical reactions that produce the gas.

What’s more, very high levels of nitrogen oxides consume ozone, says Feng, so reducing NOx pollution can increase ozone levels. “These processes together contribute to the fast increase of surface ozone in China,” he says.

Journal reference: Nature Food, DOI: 10.1038/s43016-021-00422-6

Ozone pollution: Gas causes $63 billion damage per year to East Asian crops | New Scientist
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Harmful dust levels in Greater Bangkok

The Pollution Control Department has warned of harmful levels of fine-particulate dust in Greater Bangkok on Monday and Tuesday and again later this weekend, because of stagnant air over the capital.

The department reported on Monday morning that over the past 24 hours the level of particulate matter 2.5 micrometres and less in diameter (PM2.5) in Greater Bangkok ranged from 28-62 microgrammes per cubic metre of air. The local safe threshold is 50mcg, higher  than most other countries.

Unsafe levels were measured in Klong Kum sub-district of Bung Kum district, Klong Sam Wa district, Soi Lat Phrao 95 in Wang Thong Lang district, Don Muang district, Sukhaphiban 5 in Sai Mai district, Bang Kapi intersection in Bang Kapi district, Lat Krabang Road in Lat Krabang district, Sihaburanukit Road in Min Buri district, Klong Thawi Watthana Road in Thawi Watthana district and Ma Charoen Road in Nong Khaem district.

The department said fine dust levels would rise on Tuesday morning, drop from Wednesday to Friday due to air movement and rise again on Saturday and next Monday due to air stagnation. 

Harmful dust levels in Greater Bangkok
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Reducing air pollution: Policies that pay off

Reducing fine particle mortality in a conurbation by two-thirds could be achieved at a cost that is much lower than the value of the societal and economic benefits obtained, according to a study by a multidisciplinary team from CNRS, INSERM, INRAE, Grenoble Alpes University (UGA) and Atmo Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes. The study identifies specific public policies that could achieve health objectives set by local decision makers, as well as their expected co-benefits. The findings are published in Environment International on January 15, 2022.

Every year in France, fine particle pollution (particles with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers) leads to the premature death of around 40,000 people. The associated cost is estimated at €100 billion per year. Despite this, public policies to combat air pollution are generally implemented without first assessing their future health and economic impacts.

The MobilAir project attempts to address this problem by identifying specific policies that would meet the health objectives set by decision-makers in the Grenoble conurbation, namely, a 67 percent reduction in the mortality rate associated with fine particles from 2016 to 2030. A cost-benefit analysis of various options was carried out by a collaboration involving the Grenoble Applied Economics Lab (CNRS / INRAE / UGA), the Institute for Advanced Biosciences (INSERM / CNRS / UGA), the Centre for Economics and Sociology applied to Agriculture and Rural Areas (AgroSup Dijon / INRAE) and Atmo Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes.

The team targeted the two local sectors that emit the most fine particles: wood heating and transport. They show that the health objectives can be met by combining two measures: replacing all inefficient wood heaters by modern pellet stoves, and reducing personal motor vehicle traffic within the conurbation by 36 percent. Specifically, these policies would need to be accompanied by financial assistance to households, the development of infrastructure (public transport and/or cycle paths, etc.) and carefully targeted public awareness programs.

Successful implementation of such policies would result in a series of additional health benefits going beyond the health gains directly related to fine particles, since this would promote physical activity, and reduce urban noise pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Scenarios involving the most widespread development of active modes of transport (walking and cycling) would lead to a net benefit of €8.7 billion over the period 2016-2045, i.e. an annual benefit of €629 per capita in the conurbation.

This is the first study in France to demonstrate that the societal benefits associated with measures to improve air quality would outweigh the cost of such measures. It thus provides decision-makers with scientifically validated approaches to significantly improving health throughout the conurbation.

Reducing air pollution: Policies that pay off
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Racial, ethnic minorities and low-income groups in US exposed to higher levels of air pollution

Certain groups in the U.S.—Blacks, Asians, Hispanics, Latinos, and low-income populations—are being exposed to higher levels of dangerous fine particulate air pollution (PM2.5) than other groups, according to new research from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. 

In collaboration with the Environmental Systems Research Institute, the study authors developed a new platform linking 17 years’ worth of demographic data with data on fine particulate pollution from across the U.S., and created unique visualizations, that shine a light on the stark disparities in air pollution exposure among racial/ethnic and income groups in America. 

The study will be published on January 12, 2022, in the journal Nature. 

“Our study, which highlights the relative disparities in PM2.5 exposure in the U.S., is particularly timely given current crises the country is facing, such as a reckoning with racism as well as disparities in COVID-19 outcomes,” said Francesca Dominici, Clarence James Gamble Professor of Biostatistics, Population and Data Science at the Harvard Chan School and senior author of the study. 

Previous research has shown that racial and ethnic minorities and lower-income groups in the U.S. are at higher risk of premature death from exposure to PM2.5 air pollution than other population and income groups. It’s also been shown that there are disparities in exposure to air pollution among these groups. 

The new study took a deeper dive into the issue of exposure by focusing on relative disparities across income groups and racial/ethnic groups. The researchers linked demographic data from the U.S. Census Bureau and American Community Survey for the years 2000 through 2016 with U.S.-wide PM2.5 data estimated from machine learning models based on satellite observations and atmospheric chemistry models. The data was analyzed for the nation’s 32,000 zip code tabulation areas (ZCTA). 

Under current federal air pollution standards, the annual maximum recommended exposure to PM2.5 is 12 micrograms per cubic meter of air (μg/m3). The researchers found that, on average across the U.S., PM2.5 concentration levels fell from 2000 to 2016, with average exposure falling from 12.6 μg/m3 to 7.5 μg/m3—a 40.4% drop. They also found that the percentage of the population exposed to PM2.5 levels higher than 12 μg/m3 decreased from 57.3% in 2000 to 4.5% in 2016. 

But the findings showed that, despite reductions in PM2.5 levels over the years, disparities in exposure have persisted. 

The researchers found that areas of the U.S. where the white and Native American populations are overrepresented have been consistently exposed to average PM2.5 levels that are lower than those in areas where Black, Asian, and Hispanic or Latino populations are overrepresented. 

For example, in 2016, the average PM2.5 concentration for the Black population was 13.7% higher than that of the white population and 36.3% higher than that of the Native American population. Further, the study found that, as the Black population increased in a particular ZCTA, so did the PM2.5 concentration, with a steep incline seen for ZCTAs where more than 85% of the population was Black. The trend for Hispanic and Latino populations was similar. But for the white population, the opposite was seen: The PM2.5 concentration decreased as the density of the white population increased in a particular ZCTA.  

The researchers also found that, from 2004 to 2016, areas of the U.S. with lower income groups have been exposed to higher average PM2.5 levels than areas with higher income groups. In addition, relative disparities in exposure to PM2.5 in relation to safety standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the World Health Organization have been increasing over time among racial/ethnic groups, according to the study. 

“Our findings regarding relative disparities indicate the importance of strong, targeted air-pollution-reduction strategies, not only to reduce overall air-pollution levels but also to move closer toward the EPA’s aim to provide all people with the same degree of protection from environmental hazards,” said Abdulrahman Jbaily, a former postdoctoral researcher at Harvard Chan School and first author of the study. 

Other Harvard Chan School co-authors of the study included Leila Kamareddine and Stéphane Verguet. 

Racial, ethnic minorities and low-income grou | EurekAlert!
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Long term exposure to air pollution may heighten COVID-19 risk

Long term exposure to ambient air pollution may heighten the risk of COVID-19 infection, suggests research published online in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine.

The association was strongest for particulate matter, with an average annual rise of 1 µg/m3 linked to a 5% increase in the infection rate. This equates to an extra 294 cases/100,000 people a year, indicate the findings, which focus on the inhabitants of one Northern Italian city.

While further research is needed to confirm cause and effect, the findings should reinforce efforts to cut air pollution, say the researchers.

Northern Italy has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, with Lombardy the worst affected region in terms of both cases and deaths. Several reasons have been suggested for this, including different testing strategies and demographics.

But estimates from the European Union Environmental Agency show that most of the 3.9 million Europeans residing in areas where air pollution exceeds European limits live in Northern Italy.

Recent research has implicated airborne pollution as a risk factor for COVID-19 infection, but study design flaws and data capture only up to mid 2020 have limited the findings, say the researchers.

To get round these issues, they looked at long term exposure to airborne pollutants and patterns of COVID-19 infection from the start of the pandemic to March 2021 among the residents of Varese, the eighth largest city in Lombardy.

Among the 81,543 residents as of 31 December 2017, more than 97% were successfully linked to the 2018 annual average exposure levels for the main air pollutants, based on home address.

Regional COVID-19 infection data and information on hospital discharge and outpatient drug prescriptions were gathered for 62,848 adults yet to be infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19 at the end of 2019 until the end of March 2021.

Official figures show that only 3.5% of the population in the entire region were fully vaccinated by the end of March 2021.

Estimates of annual and seasonal average levels of five airborne pollutants were available for 2018 over an area more than 40 km wide: particulate matter (PM2.5, PM10); nitrogen dioxide (NO2); nitric oxide (NO); and ozone (O3).

The average PM2.5 and NO2 values were 12.5 and 20.1 µg/m3, respectively. The corresponding population-weighted average annual exposures in Italy for the same year were 15.5 and 20.1 µg/m3, respectively.

Some 4408 new COVID-19 cases, which were registered between 25 February 2020 and 13 March 2021, were included in the study. This equates to a rate of 6005 cases/100,000 population/year. Population density wasn’t associated with a heightened risk of infection. But living in a residential care home was associated with a more than 10-fold heightened risk of the infection.

Drug treatment for diabetes, high blood pressure, and obstructive airway diseases, as well as a history of stroke were also associated with, respectively, a 17%, 12%, 17%, and 29%, heightened risk.

After accounting for age, gender, and care home residency, plus concurrent long term conditions, averages, both PM2.5 and PM10 were significantly associated with an increased COVID-19 infection rate.

Every 1 µg/m3 increase in long term exposure to PM2.5 was associated with a 5% increase in the number of new cases of COVID-19 infection, equivalent to 294 extra cases per 100,000 of the population/year.

Applying seasonal rather than annual averages yielded similar results, and these findings were confirmed in further analyses that excluded care home residents and further adjusted for local levels of deprivation and use of public transport. Similar findings were observed for PM10, NO2 and NO.

The observed associations were even more noticeable among older age groups, indicating a stronger effect of pollutants on the COVID-19 infection rate among 55–64 and 65–74 year olds, suggest the researchers.

This is an observational study, and as such, can’t establish cause. And although the researchers considered various potentially influential factors, they weren’t able to account for mobility, social interaction, humidity, temperature and certain underlying conditions, such as mental ill health and kidney disease.

Long term exposure to air pollution heightens the risk of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases through persistent inflammation and compromised immunity. These same pathways may therefore be involved in the link between air pollution and higher COVID-19 infection rates, suggest the researchers.

“Our findings provide the first solid empirical evidence for the hypothesised pathway linking long-term exposure to air pollution with the incidence of COVID-19, and deserve future generalisation in different contexts,” they conclude.

“Meanwhile, government efforts to further reduce air pollution levels can help to mitigate the public health burden of COVID-19.”

Long term exposure to air pollution may heighten COVID-19 risk
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