Scientists at Bremen University tracking air pollution in our cities

“You have probably used an app on your mobile phone to get the weather forecast. Now, thanks to a satellite network and ground-based stations, it is possible to get through an app on your phone information about pollution in your cities.

‘The university of Bremen, in Germany, is collecting different kinds of data, in order to obtain a general picture of the pollution in the atmosphere,” reported euronews correspondent Claudio Rosmino from Germany.

Earth’s atmosphere is a complicated system, influenced by a large number of factors. Observation satellites orbiting around our planet constantly monitor the state of the air we breath and how natural and man-made pollution are affecting the quality of the atmosphere.

Researchers at the university of Bremen have pioneered the measurement of atmospheric pollution.

“Measurements from space are essential because they provide us with the global picture from the local to the global scale. They to tell us what the meteorology and atmospheric chemistry are doing to our emissions.

‘The wind system is moving the air around. At certain times of the year Europe is venting to the pristine regions of the Arctic. Similarly, in Europe, we receive in summer, often, pollution coming from America. We have to understand the sources, the so-called surface fluxes, the emissions and we also have to understand the atmospheric chemistry and physics which enables the pollution to be sent around the globe,” explained John Philip Burrows, Professor of Physics of Atmosphere and Oceans, University of Bremen.

To detect every piece of the chemical puzzle composing our atmosphere, scientists work with data collected by spectrometers, aerosol analysis and satellite measurements as with the ones coming from the Earth observation Copernicus programme.

In the Bremen observatory, above the university roof, the sunlight is decomposed into its basic radiation and analysed to find traces of pollutants.

“You can say that every molecule has its finger print in the spectrum. There are million of lines, so there is an enormous amount of information in it and these lines in this case now can be attributed to CO2. So, it’s the CO2 in the atmosphere, which is absorbing solar sunlight,” explained Justus Notholt,
Professor of Remote Sensing at the University of Bremen.

The university uses a truck as a mobile measurement station. It helps detect the footprints of smog and industrial emissions which affect the air quality.

Methane and CO2 are the greenhouse gases driving global climate change and they are strongly linked to human activity, but to have the wider picture, it is crucial to distinguish between man-made and natural pollution.

“The truck provides a unique set of different instruments. On one hand we have instruments which are just sucking in the air around us, which means that we are able to analyse the air for pollutants. On the other hand we have remote sensing instruments using more of less the same type of analysis as the space born instruments, to having a broad idea of pollutants around us,” Folkard Wittrock, Research Group leader at the University of Bremen pointed out.

In the coming months the Bremen researchers are launching a further initiative to investigate the impact of major population centres on air quality at a local and regional level by dedicated airborne campaigns.

This ‘Carbon Dioxide and Methane Mission’ will provide new data in order to support the validation of satellite measurements.

“We have two intensive air born measurement campaigns where we get a kind of snapshot of the chemistry of these outflows and in the analysis we combine this with satellite data to understand how the chemical evolution of the outflows from mega-cities,” explained Maria Dolores Andrés Hernandéz,
Research Group leader, University of Bremen.

Once the ‘air pollution detectives’ have gathered all the evidence, they must process this huge amount of data. That final step requires complex algorithms and IT infrastructures to get a coherence between measurements from the observation satellite network and the different sensors on Earth. This is the base to build a tool to forecast pollution.

“The satellite gives us these beautiful maps, but you can only use them really if you have a validation measurement to compare to and this needs to be a very good measurement and it needs to be taken from the ground.

‘Once you have launched the satellite, it is out of your hands and you cannot bring it to the lab and double check and test it. It’s there and you need to trust the data, and the only way to get this confidence in the data is by comparison to other measurements,” said Andreas Richter, Senior Scientist at the University of Bremen.

The increase of greenhouse gases have changed the Earth’s energy balance and accelerated the climate change process.

The impact on global warming has revealed the vulnerability of the planet’s ecosystem.

That makes scientific studies fundamental for our ability to cope with high impact weather events and establishing suitable policies.

“Mankind has a large influence on the climate and the problem is everything that we are doing now has very long time scales, we have to make now decisions so that we can see results in 50 years or maybe even later,” explained Justus Notholt,
Professor of Remote Sensing, University of Bremen.

“We need better information and better quality information, in order to be able to provide the right mechanisms and the best possible models for prediction of human impact and natural phenomena.

‘As we have seen in Europe the improvement of the air quality, and this is certainly the result of policy. It shows that people can do it, governments can do it, but we’ve got a long way to go,” said John Philip Burrows,Professor of Physics of Atmosphere and Oceans, University of Bremen.

When it is launched into orbit later this year, ESA’s satellite Sentinel-5 Precursor will provide high-level measurements on the Earth’s atmosphere, surpassing the performances of current in-orbit instruments.

It will boost the quality of data gathering and enabling researchers to optimise their models.

Source: Scientists at Bremen University tracking air pollution in our cities | Euronews

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‘Airpocalypse’ smog events in China linked to melting ice cap, research reveals 

Stagnant weather caused by fast-melting Arctic ice helped create conditions for China’s recent extreme air pollution events, scientists say

Climate change played a major role in the extreme air pollution events suffered recently by China and is likely to make such “airpocalypses” more common, new research has revealed.

The fast-melting ice in the Arctic and an increase in snowfalls in Siberia, both the result of global warming, are changing winter weather patterns over east China, scientists found. Periods of stagnant air are becoming more common, trapping pollution and leading to the build up of extreme levels of toxic air.

The work is the latest to show that changes in the rapidly warming Arctic are already leading to severe impacts for hundreds of millions of people across North America, Europe and Asia. The US has also seen a rise in episodes of stagnant air, which may be leading to higher air pollution there.

“The very rapid change in polar warming is really having a large impact on China,” said Prof Yuhang Wang, at Georgia Tech in the US, who led the new research. “Emissions in China have been decreasing over the last four years, but the severe winter haze is not getting better.”

“Mostly that’s because of a very rapid change in the high polar regions where sea ice is decreasing and snowfall is increasing,” he said. “This perturbation keeps cold air from getting into the eastern parts of China, where it would flush out the air pollution.”

The new research is convincing, according to Prof Jennifer Francis, at Rutgers University in the US, who said people should be concerned at the growing evidence that the thawing Arctic is having major consequences further south. “Not all the impacts of a melting Arctic are bad – such as taking the edge off of winter cold snaps – but most of the effects will have a negative impact on the billions of people living in temperate regions,” she said.

Air pollution causes 1.4 million early deaths every year in China and the “airpocalypse” in 2013, when levels soared to 10 times national limits, grabbed global attention. The US embassy had been tweeting data on the “crazy bad” air, which led the Chinese government to open up its reporting and then to crack down on pollution later in 2013.

However, despite cuts in emissions helping clear the air in summer, the winter haze remained a serious problem, leading Wang’s team to investigate. Their research, published in the journal Science Advances, found that periods of stagnant air over east China correlated closely with years of very low Arctic ice and high snowfall in Siberia.

They then used climate models to show that these changes in the Arctic could cause domes of high pressure in the region, under which low winds meant air pollution builds up instead of being blown away.

The 2013 “airpocalypse” followed the record low Arctic ice in late 2012 and record high snow in northern Siberia. Arctic ice plunged to its second lowest extent in late 2016 and China was again hit with an extreme air pollution event this winter. “2013 was off the chart” in terms of poor ventilation conditions over east China, said Wang. “And the winter of 2016-17 was nearly as bad.”

The researchers concluded that “extreme haze events in winter will likely occur at a higher frequency in China” as climate change continues to heat up the Arctic. Wang said this should drive an increased urgency in cutting both air pollution and the carbon emissions that cause global warming.

“When you look at haze reduction, it is not just about reducing emissions of air pollutants, it is also about reducing emissions of greenhouses gases from China and all the other countries in the world, so we can possibly slow down the rapidly changing Arctic climate,” Wang said.

The emissions of greenhouse gases from human activity is responsible for at least half, and possibly up to two-thirds, of the fall in summer sea ice in the Arctic since the late 1970s, according to recent research.

Source: ‘Airpocalypse’ smog events in China linked to melting ice cap, research reveals | Environment | The Guardian

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Mumbai be warned! Air pollution in the city is worse than even Delhi

Mumbaikars there’s some bad news for you. Mumbai has recorded higher air pollution levels than Delhi over the last two weeks.

A study conducted by System of Air Quality Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR) has found that Mumbai has worse air pollution levels than Delhi having recorded higher toxic air quality during the months of February and March.

The presence of micro pollutants in Mumbai’s air was above allowable limits, which can easily penetrate into the lungs and cause air borne diseases and chronic ailments. SAFAR studied Air Quality Index of Pune, Delhi and Mumbai and found out it was the Maharashtra capital which had the worse air quality as compared to the other cities.

SAFAR revealed that the worst affected suburbs were Bhandup, Malad, Chembur and Mazgaon. The study concluded by stating that with the end of winter, Delhi and Pune had satisfactory air quality of 40% and 47% respectively, but Mumbai’s recorded air quality was as low as 13%.

Source: Mumbai be warned! Air pollution in the city is worse than even Delhi – News

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Air pollution in Hanoi reaches hazardous levels 

Air pollution in the capital city, which has been bad since last Tuesday, is so severe now that health experts have warned people to stay indoors.

The Air Quality Index at various air monitoring stations across Ha Noi showed dangerously high levels on Monday night.

For instance, it was at 214 at Nhon Street in Bac Tu Liem District, which is very high. Earlier, last Thursday, the index had touched 294 here, while it was at 263 on Pham Van Dong Street.

An index of above 300 will have adverse effect on people, according to the US Environment Protection Agency.

Ha Noi People’s Committee Chairman Nguyen Duc Chung admitted that the city’s air quality was at “red alert level”.

At a recent meeting with concerned agencies, Chung had said that the high level of air pollution was the result of the large number of cars and motorcycles in the city that have crossed their expiry dates.

“Ha Noi has nearly six million motorcycles, of which 2.5 million crossed their expiry date and should be banned on roads. These vehicles are seriously polluting the environment,” he told Zing online newspaper.

Chung also blamed the worsening of the air quality on road constructions and industries.

Drastic measures would be adopted to curb the problem and improve air quality, he said. The city would ask project investors to spend on waste treatment systems and use eco-friendly technologies.

In the future, Ha Noi will add 80 observation posts for recording air pollution.

Source: Air pollution in Hanoi reaches hazardous levels – News VietNamNet

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London’s quality of life ranking slips over pollution and traffic 

London has slipped down a list of the best cities in the world for quality of life due to high levels of traffic and pollution.

The capital placed 40th in the 19th annual Mercer Quality of Life Survey. London was 39th last year but was nudged down one place in the latest rankings by the French city of Lyon.

Kate Fitzpatrick, Mercer’s global mobility practice leader for the UK & Ireland said: “The capital’s only downfall in regard to infrastructure is heavy traffic congestion, which also contributes to the city’s low score for air quality and pollution.”

London was five places ahead of Edinburgh – the only other British city to make the top 50.

Ms Fitzpatrick said Brexit could also have an impact on London’s position in the rankings in future.

“Mercer will continue to closely monitor any impact of the upcoming Brexit negotiations on the quality of living in UK and European cities overall, in order to support multinational companies as they assess the best locations to attract the skilled workforce they require,” she said.

The study ranks cities by looking at access to healthcare, social and economic conditions, quality of education, housing and environmental factors, including traffic congestion and air pollution.

London mayor Sadiq Khan is pressing ahead with a series of measures to cut air pollution in the capital including a £10-a-day T-charge on the most polluting vehicles to drive into central London from October, as well as introducing the Ultra Low Emission Zone earlier than 2020 and possibly expanding it from the city centre to the north and south circulars.

Nitrogen dioxide emissions from diesel cars are a key contributor to the capital’s poor air quality, which has seen City Hall advising the public to avoid strenuous activity on the worst-affected days.

A series of high air pollution alerts have already been issued for the capital in the first three months of the year.

In January, air pollution in London reached a six year high when a “black” alert was issued for parts of the capital leading to one school restricting time outdoors for children.

Last month, a report commissioned by the mayor revealed that tens of thousands of children in London schools are being exposed to illegal levels of air pollution.

The report also showed that London’s poor are far more likely to be living in areas affected by air pollution linked to 9,000 early deaths every year in the capital.

London is one of many places hit by the UK’s air quality crisis, which has led to the Government being issued with a “final warning” by the European Commission for repeated breaches of legal limits.

Vienna in Austria beat 231 other cities to claim the top spot in the study. Baghdad was handed the lowest ranking.

The German citiies of Dusseldorf, Munich and Frankfurt all made the top ten.

Destinations from further afield that made the cut include Auckland, Vancouver, Zurich and Sydney.

This year's Mercer Quality of Life rankings:
1. Vienna, Austria

2. Zurich, Switzerland

3. Auckland, New Zealand

4. Munich, Germany

5. Vancouver, Canada

6. Dusseldorf, Germany

7. Frankfurt, Germany

8. Geneva, Switzerland

9. Copenhagen, Denmark

10=. Basel, Switzerland

10=. Sydney, Australia

12. Amsterdam, Netherlands

13. Berlin, Germany

14. Bern, Switzerland

15. Wellington, New Zealand

16=. Melbourne, Australia

16=. Toronto, Canada

18. Ottawa, Canada

19. Hamburg, Germany

20. Stockholm, Sweden

San Francisco was for the second year running ranked the highest  American city, with Boston, New York and Honolulu all making the top 50.

In 69th place, Prague is the highest ranking city in Central and Eastern Europe, followed by Ljubljana and Budapest.

Rome fell by four places due to ongoing waste removal issues.

Source: London’s quality of life ranking slips over pollution and traffic | London Evening Standard

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The Moss That Saved Portland 

Roadside plants helped officials trace the source of a public health crisis and led to new standards for clean air in Oregon.

Orthotrichum lyellii is the hero of this story. You’ve probably met it before: a tuft of green with soft tassels of leaves, stuck to a tree trunk or possibly a rock. Unlike plants with roots, this moss absorbs all it needs from air—an adaptation that allowed it to pinpoint poisons in Portland, Oregon, two years back.

In the spring of 2015, Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) conducted tests as part of its Portland Air Toxics Solutions project. The department was monitoring dirty compounds that persist in the air via car exhaust, fuel burning, construction, and industrial processes.

The results were alarming. Concentrations of metals like cadmium and arsenic were three to six times higher than what is deemed safe. Elevated levels of this kind of toxin in the air can cause serious human health issues, including cancer and kidney, bone, and lung disease. Exposure to the metals can also impact neurological development in children. “We didn’t know the source, and we got pretty concerned,” says Oregon DEQ’s air toxics specialist Sarah Armitage.

DEQ was primarily interested in finding the source of the cadmium. The Portland office of the U.S. Forest Service, which had been testing air pollution for the previous two years and was interested in partnering with DEQ, guided the department to nature’s well-suited detective, Orthotrichum lyellii. Absorbent and rootless, moss and lichen are regularly employed as indicators of air pollution in European cities, explains the Forest Service’s Sarah Jovan. But environmental scientists in the United States are just now taking advantage of the valuable service that they offer.

Obtaining samples was a cinch. Orthotrichum lyellii grows particularly well on hardwood trees like maples and oaks. “We just went out and pulled a lot of moss off the tree trunks,” Jovan says.

After testing nearly 350 Orthotrichum lyellii samples from Portland’s trees, Jovan’s team crafted a moss-cadmium map for the city. It revealed two very toxic hot spots next to the Bullseye and Uroboros glass factories in different parts of town. Jovan and her colleagues shared their findings with Oregon’s DEQ that May.

What happened next was alarming. Five months passed before the DEQ placed air monitors near the metal hot spots that the moss testing had revealed. And the agency waited another three months before telling Bullseye that its southeast Portland factory was the prime source of the toxic cadmium emissions. When the public and Governor Kate Brown learned of the regulators’ lackadaisical approach to addressing such a serious case of air pollution, they cried foul.

In February 2016, state senators called the findings a public health emergency. During a heated community meeting that month, the Portland Mercury reporter who broke the story asked state air quality manager David Munro why the DEQ allowed businesses to freely vent carcinogens like cadmium into the city’s air. “It’s a good question,” Munro responded. Oregon did not have sturdy laws or regulations in place to stop them from doing so. In March, the New York Times reported locals weeping at public meetings and “raging” at their state officials. Home gardeners became afraid of their soils. Citizen air quality groups formed. Both Munro and Dick Pedersen, Oregon’s DEQ director, resigned.

Gradually, the glass companies and the government responded to the health scare. Both factories voluntarily stopped using arsenic and cadmium shortly after being notified about the moss study results. (The smaller, artist-owned factory, Uroboros, has since closed its Portland base.) After the compounds were put out of use, outdoor metal levels, as one would suspect, began to fall. In April 2016, DEQ established a set of glass-manufacturing rules that called for Bullseye to monitor its emissions. Today, the factory has returned to using arsenic (which rids the glass solution of bubbles) and cadmium (a key coloring ingredient in red and orange glass) but has installed new exhaust filters on its furnaces to keep the two toxins out of the atmosphere.

According to the DEQ, metal levels outside the Bullseye plant are now in sync with the background levels found throughout Portland. (The Cornell Waste Management Institute notes that there is no single standard that defines acceptable levels of these contaminants, however.) And the DEQ concedes that air monitors won’t always be spot on; windy weather and technology errors can get in the way of accurate readings.

Portland is now in the process of correcting its previously lax air regulations. Bullseye still does not have controls for other metals such as chromium or cobalt, which is used for blue glass. The company also had a serious, unaddressed lead issue. Moreover, a follow-up moss study found that nickel levels near one Portland industrial and metal factory were four times above health benchmarks. After this, DEQ quickly installed air-quality controls.

Beyond factories, car emissions like nitrogen and diesel are also a big concern in Oregon. When California tightened its own emissions rules, its northern neighbor became a dumping ground for hundreds of thousands of old trucks shooed off Golden State roads.

As a state that prides itself on its progressive environmental ethos, Oregon has grown especially sensitive to the issue of air pollution. In April of last year, the EPA ordered the state’s environmental health agencies to monitor for toxins via the Cleaner Air Oregon initiative. Now Oregon must comply with federal air-quality standards that it had been violating. But since these regulations aren’t tailored to specific facilities, emissions from individual businesses may still exceed lawful levels. Starting next fall, facilities statewide will be required to submit a detailed inventory of 600-plus potential chemicals they use, to help inform pollution prevention activities and related legislation. While about half of U.S. states, including California, have already gone above and beyond EPA regulations and adopted their own industry air-toxics control programs, Oregon has yet to do the same. Clearly, says Armitage, “we had an air-quality regulatory gap.” Regulators are relying on Cleaner Air Oregon to help fill that gap—the initiative’s timeline calls for new, permanent air-quality rules to be issued by the end of this year.

While public outcry helped to raise Portland’s awareness of its air problems, let’s not forget the original canary in the coal mine: the tree moss by the factories. Thanks to its absorbent powers, this easily overlooked plant revealed invisible toxins hiding in plain sight and spurred an effective movement to protect the city in whose midst it lived.

Source: The Moss That Saved Portland | NRDC

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Madrid to ban old cars by 2025 in crackdown on air pollution

Madrid’s city government announced plans on Monday to ban the oldest and most polluting vehicles from the city centre by 2025 in a bid to crackdown on air pollution.

The local government will prohibit the use within the city’s limits of gasoline cars registered before 2000 and diesel-powered cars registered before 2006, which at the moment account for 20 percent of all those registered.

The ban would lower nitrogen dioxide levels in the city by an estimated 15 percent, a poisonous gas behind respiratory problems, Madrid’s local government said in a presentation.

Madrid has failed to meet European Union-set limits on air quality for the last eight years. Other European cities such as Paris and Berlin have already put similar plans in place to curb emissions.

“This is plan A for air quality in Madrid. It’s plan A because there can’t be any plan B,” Madrid’s mayor Manuela Carmen said at an event to present the new plan.

Madrid’s local government has allocated 544 million euros ($580.83 million) to completing 30 measures included in the plan, which also encourages greater use of renewable energy and regenerating urban areas, according to the presentation.

Source: Madrid to ban old cars by 2025 in crackdown on air pollution | Reuters

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B vitamins may have ‘protective effect’ against air pollution 

B vitamins may offer some protection against the impacts of air pollution, a small scale human trial suggests.

Researchers in the US found that high doses of these supplements may “completely offset” the damage caused by very fine particulate matter.

The scientists involved say the effect is real but stress the limitations of their work.

Follow up studies are urgently needed, they say, in heavily polluted cities like Beijing or Mexico.

While the impacts of air pollution on health have become a cause of growing concern to people all around the world, the actual mechanics of exactly how dirty air makes people sick are not clearly understood.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over 90% of the world’s population live in areas where air pollution exceeds safety guidelines.

One of the pollutants that is considered the most dangerous is very fine particulate matter, referred to as PM2.5, where particles have a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometres.

These complex particulates come from diesel cars, wood burning stoves and as a by-product of chemical reactions between other polluting gases.

At around 1/30 the width of a human hair, PM2.5 fragments can lodge deep in the human lung and contribute to lung and heart health issues in the young and old.

Scientists have long suspected that PM2.5 causes what are termed epigenetic changes in our cells that can damage our health.

The genes in our DNA contain the instructions for life, but epigenetics controls how those instructions are used – it’s like the relationship between an mp3 track and the volume control, you can only hear the musical notes (genes) when you dial up the volume (epigenetic changes).

The study shows the very presence of environmental factors like air pollution seems to alter genes in the immune system at the epigenetic level – switching them on or off, and inhibiting our defences.

Researchers had already seen that nutrients could somehow stop this process in animal studies with the chemical Bisphenol A.

Now in this new human trial, an international team of scientists wanted to see if exposure to concentrations of PM2.5 could be mitigated by a daily B vitamin supplement containing 2.5mg of folic acid, 50mg of vitamin B6, and 1mg of vitamin B12.

Ten volunteers were tested initially exposed to clean air while given a placebo to measure their basic responses. The same volunteers were later tested with large doses of B vitamins while exposed to air containing high levels of PM2.5.

The researchers found that a four week B vitamin supplementation limited the PM2.5 effect by between 28-76% at ten gene locations. They found a similar reduction in impact on the mitochondrial DNA, the parts of cells that generate energy.

“Where we quantify the effect, it is almost close to a complete offset on the epigenome of the air pollution,” said Jia Zhong from Harvard School of Public Health, who led the study.

“On the mitochondrial DNA side, it also offset a big proportion of it.”

However, the authors caution that their study, while observing a real effect, has many limitations. As well as the small number of participants, there was little information on the size of the B vitamin dose that elicited the response.

“We didn’t have different doses and the doses we used were quite high, higher than a normal pregnancy suggested intake. So it is quite high but at the same we did observe this protective effect,” said Jia Zhong.

Other scientists in the field, while welcoming the study, agree that caution is needed.

“The fact that they find a coherent story in only 10 subjects is promising, but clearly warrants further follow-up in larger populations especially considering the ethnic variability in this study,” said Prof Carrie Breton from the University of Southern California, who wasn’t involved in the report.

“While I think it is great that doing something as easy as taking a vitamin would help protect against air pollution harm, the public health goal still needs to be one of reducing air pollution to a level that is not harmful,” she said in a statement.

The authors acknowledge that this was a pilot study to test a hypothesis and they are not in a position to make any deductions about whether B vitamins could be used in clinical practice as a means of protecting against air pollution.

More and bigger studies are needed – and they need to be done in environments where people have a major exposure to PM2.5.

“I think that B vitamins are a likely hope that we can potentially utilise as an individualised treatment to complement the policy regulations to minimise the impacts of air pollution,” said Jia Zhong.

“A more sophisticated study is urgently needed in Beijing or India or Mexico just to see whether those who are chronically exposed, if the protective effect can still be effective.”

The study has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Source: B vitamins may have ‘protective effect’ against air pollution – BBC News

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