Air pollution linked to nearly 400,000 premature deaths 

Bulgaria and Poland have the highest levels of premature deaths attributed to particulate pollution.

Air quality in Europe is improving, but pollution is still killing a lot of people.

Fine particulate matter pollution caused 399,000 premature deaths in EU countries in 2014, according to the most recent estimates on the health impact of air pollution published Wednesday by the European Environment Agency (EEA). That is an 8 percent decrease compared to the previous year. The data was submitted by national authorities and analyzed by the EEA, which came up with the estimates of premature deaths.

Air pollution causes heart and respiratory diseases, and cuts life expectancy.

“As a society, we should not accept the cost of air pollution. With bold decisions and smart investments in cleaner transport, energy and agriculture, we can both tackle pollution and improve our quality of life,” said EEA Executive Director Hans Bruyninckx in a press release.

Bulgaria had by far the highest rate of premature deaths attributable to particulate pollution, according to EEA data crunched by POLITICO. Next was Poland, where more than a third of the population heats their homes with polluting coal-fired furnaces. Sweden and Ireland had the lowest rates.


The main source for particulate pollution overall is domestic heating, followed by road transport and industrial processes.

Most countries had lower health impacts in 2014 than in 2013, but premature deaths rose in Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania and Sweden.

The picture looks grimmer for specific air pollutants. Premature deaths linked to nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which is closely linked to diesel vehicle exhaust, increased to 75,000 in 2014 from 68,000 in 2013. Breaches of EU legal limits were reported in 22 of the 28 EU countries in 2015.

EU legal limits for fine particulate matter were breached less frequently in 2015, but over 80 percent of Europe’s urban population was still exposed to concentrations above World Health Organization guidelines. WHO limits are tougher than those set by the EU.

The proportion of people exposed to harmful levels of pollution was even higher for ozone (over 95 percent), which surges during heat waves, and benzo[a]pyrene (over 85 percent) — closely linked to low-quality domestic heating and of particular concern in Central and Eastern Europe.

The European Commission has launched infringement proceedings against more than 20 EU countries for breaching EU air pollution limits.

Source: Air pollution linked to nearly 400,000 premature deaths – POLITICO

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Air pollution from California fires equals a year’s worth of traffic, analyst says

According to local fire officials, buildings in California’s Napa and Sonoma counties were being evacuated on Monday morning, after multiple wildfires began spreading throughout the area with a thick smoke and large flames. According to the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the fire was burning in the hills above Napa County and had damaged several buildings. As of Monday morning, firefighters have continued to struggle to contain the fire. Officials said dry winds were fanning the flames and asked residents in mandatory evacuation zones to leave immediately.

There’s enough wildfire activity in California and Nevada to blanket much of both states with a layer of smoke in the coming days.

In California alone more than 140,000 acres are burning in large, wildland fires throughout the state. A fire in rough terrain near Reno is also contributing to smoke in northern Nevada.

In just the past two days, fires in California’s wine country are thought to have produced as much small particulate matter as all the vehicles in the state produce in a year.

“It’s a lot,” said Sean Raffuse, an air-quality analyst at the Crocker Nuclear Laboratory at University of California in Davis.

Although the early estimates are rough, Raffuse said the fires in the wine country have probably produced about 10,000 tons of PM 2.5, an air pollutant that’s the main cause of haze in the United States.

By way of comparison, it takes the approximately 35 million on-road vehicles in California a year to generate a similar amount of PM 2.5, Raffuse said.

“Interestingly, these fuels are relatively light compared to some areas,” Raffuse said of the fires in wine country. “For example, I would expect the Redwood Valley Fire burning in Mendocino County to produce 2-3 times more smoke per acre burned.”

The amount of smoke is significant because PM 2.5 is associated with respiratory and cardiovascular problems in people.

And smoke from the thousands of structures burned in some of the fires can be even more hazardous than typical wildland fire smoke, said Jim Roberts, a research chemist from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth System’s Research Laboratory.

“It is a little bit different because they had so many structures burn, that is a different fuel mixture … a lot of that stuff has toxic emissions associated with it,” Roberts said.

The smoke and fumes will be most hazardous to the people closest to the burning, he said.

“On the local scale when that smoke stays in the area and you are exposed to it, then it can be harmful,” Roberts said. “People who fight residential fires really worry about those materials. That is why they wear respirators when they go into a house.”

Air quality data from the Environmental Protection Agency showed a large plume of dense smoke stretching from the central California coast, across the northwest corner of Nevada and into southern Oregon and Idaho on Wednesday.

Air quality forecasts in Reno, San Francisco and Sacramento predicted varying degrees of unhealthy air throughout northern California and Nevada.

Source: Air pollution from California fires equals a year’s worth of traffic, analyst says

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Oxford aims to cut air pollution with car ban in zero emissions zone 

Oxford council will phase out polluting vehicles including taxis, cars and buses from city centre area in 2020

The introduction of a zero emissions zone could see levels of nitrogen dioxide fall by up to three quarters by 2035, the councils said. Photograph: David Williams/Alamy

Polluting vehicles could be banned from Oxford city centre under plans to bring in what officials believe would be the world’s first zero emissions zone.

The proposals aim to slash air pollution in the historic university city, which has seen levels of the harmful pollutant nitrogen dioxide plateau above legal limits in some areas.

Under the plans, which are being put out for consultation on Monday, the ban would be introduced in phases, starting with preventing non-zero emissions taxis, cars, light commercial vehicles and buses on a small number of streets in 2020.

As vehicle technology develops, the zero emissions zone would extend to cover all vehicle types, including HGVs, and the whole of the city centre by 2035, according to the joint proposals by Oxford city council and Oxfordshire county council.

The introduction of the zero emissions zone could see levels of nitrogen dioxide, much of which comes from traffic fumes, particularly diesel engines, fall by up to three quarters by 2035, the councils said.

The city has already won £500,000 of government funding to install charging points for electric taxis, and £800,000 to install 100 electric vehicle charging points for residents, but officials say more will be needed to support the zero emissions zone.

Other schemes being considered to support the zone include reduced parking fees for electric vehicles, electric taxi-only ranks and electric delivery vehicle-only loading areas.

Councillor John Tanner of Oxford city council said: “Toxic and illegal air pollution in the city centre is damaging the health of Oxford’s residents. A step change is urgently needed; the zero emissions zone is that step change.

“All of us who drive or use petrol or diesel vehicles through Oxford are contributing to the city’s toxic air. Everyone needs to do their bit, from national government and local authorities, to businesses and residents, to end this public health emergency.”

Oxfordshire county council councillor Yvonne Constance said: “We want to hear from everyone who uses the city centre, including businesses, bus and taxi firms and local residents, so that we get the fullest possible picture.

“We know that there will be a wide variety of views and we want hear them all. Pragmatism will be an important part of anything we plan but we have set the ambition and now we would like to hear people’s views on our proposals.”

Source: Oxford aims to cut air pollution with car ban in zero emissions zone | UK news | The Guardian

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Wildfires causing ‘unprecedented levels’ of air pollution 

The North Bay wildfires are causing “unprecedented levels” of air pollution throughout the Bay Area, regional air quality officials said today.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District earlier today issued a smoke advisory because of the wildfires, which have burned tens of thousands of acres in Napa and Sonoma Counties, and this afternoon issued a health advisory and Spare the Air alert.

Air district officials recommend that residents impacted by heavy smoke, particularly in Napa and Sonoma counties, take shelter in buildings with filtered air or move to areas less impacted by the pollution.

“Due to active wildfires and changing wind patterns, air quality could be impacted for many days to come,” air district officials said in a statement.

They encourage residents who see or smell smoke in the area to avoid outdoor activity or exercise. Parents and school administrators should check air quality readings before allowing children to practice outdoor sports, according to the air district.

Real-time air quality readings can be found here.

People who are indoors should set their air conditioning to re-circulate to avoid bringing outside air into buildings. Air district officials also asked that people avoid any activities like wood burning, lawn mowing, leaf blowing, driving or barbecuing that can add to the air pollution.

Children, the elderly and people with respiratory conditions are the most sensitive to the pollution and should take extra precautions, according to the air district.

Source: Air district: Wildfires causing ‘unprecedented levels’ of air pollution | News | Almanac Online |

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‘Sooty birds’ reveal hidden US air pollution 

Red-headed Woodpeckers from 1901 (top) and 1982 (bottom); CARL FULDNER AND SHANE DUBAY

Soot trapped in the feathers of songbirds over the past 100 years is causing scientists to revise their records of air pollution.

US researchers measured the black carbon found on 1,300 larks, woodpeckers and sparrows over the past century.

They’ve produced the most complete picture to date of historic air quality over industrial parts of the US.

The study also boosts our understanding of historic climate change.

Smokey cities

Black carbon, a major component of soot, is created through the incomplete burning of fossil fuels such as coal.

The dirty air generated as a result became a major problem as industrialisation expanded across Europe and the US at the end of the 19th century.

A comparison of Horned Larks collected inside and outside of US industrial areas during the early 20th century; CARL FULDNER AND SHANE DUBAY

Cities were soon coated in sooty air thanks to the unregulated burning of coal in homes and factories.

While the huge impact of black carbon on the health of people living in urban centres has been recognised for decades, it is only in recent years that scientists have understood the role it plays climate change.

When it is suspended in the air, the substance absorbs sunlight and increases warming in the atmosphere.

When it hits the ground it increases melting of snow and ice, and has been linked to the loss of ice in the Arctic region.

US researchers have struggled to find accurate records of the amount of black carbon that was emitted in the manufacturing belt of the US, around Chicago, Detroit and Pittsburgh at the end of the 19th century.

This new study takes an unusual approach to working out the scale of soot coming from this part of the US over the last 100 years.

The scientists trawled through natural history collections in museums in the region and measured evidence of black carbon, trapped in the feathers and wings of songbirds as they flew through the smoky air.

The researchers were able to accurately estimate the amount of soot on each bird by photographing them and measuring the amount of light reflected off them.

“We went into natural history collections and saw that birds from 100 years ago that were soiled, they were covered in soot,” co-author Shane DuBay, from the Field Museum and the University of Chicago, told BBC News.

“We saw that birds from the present were cleaner and we knew that at some point through time the birds cleaned up – when we did our first pass of analysis using reflectance we were like wow, we have some incredible precision.”

Their analysis of over 1,000 birds shows that black carbon levels peaked in the first decade of the 1900s and that the air at the turn of the century was worse than previously thought.

The study showed that during the great depression in the US, the use of coal fell. It boomed again during World War Two but began a long term decline straight after as new fuels like gas were used to heat homes and less polluting forms of coal were burned.

While the study has improved the timeline of air pollution across the industrial part of the US, it also indicates that current emissions inventories underestimate atmospheric levels of black carbon in the early industrial age.

“The big finding and implication of our study is that we are recovering relative concentrations of atmospheric black carbon that are higher than previously estimated from other methods,” said Shane DuBay.

“It helps constrain and inform how we understand the relative role of black carbon in past climate and by understanding that we can more accurately model future climate scenarios.”

Having refined this novel approach the authors believe that it can be adapted for use in other parts of the world with a strong industrial heritage.

“We are very excited about the prospects of expanding the project into the UK which has a longer history of industry and also a longer history of natural history collecting,” said co-author Carl Fuldner from the University of Chicago.

“Some of the resources in the UK go back much farther in time, so the results we could find in a comparative study would be very exciting.”

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

Source: ‘Sooty birds’ reveal hidden US air pollution – BBC News

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Air pollution exposure on home-to-school routes reduces the growth of working memory 

Findings of an ISGlobal study underscore the importance of establishing school routes along less polluted streets

A new study has demonstrated that exposure to air pollution on the way to school can have damaging effects on children’s cognitive development. The study found an association between a reduction in working memory and exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and black carbon during the walking commute to and from school.

A study led by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal), an institute supported by the “la Caixa” Banking Foundation, has demonstrated that exposure to air pollution on the way to school can have damaging effects on children’s cognitive development. The study, published recently in Environmental Pollution, found an association between a reduction in working memory and exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and black carbon during the walking commute to and from school.

The study was carried out in the framework of the BREATHE project. Previous research in the same project found that exposure to traffic-related pollutants in schools was associated with slower cognitive development. The aim of the team undertaking the new study was to assess the impact of exposure to air pollution during the walking commute to school. The findings of an earlier study had shown that 20% of a child’s daily dose of black carbon — a pollutant directly related to traffic — is inhaled during urban commutes.

“The results of earlier toxicological and experimental studies have shown that these short exposures to very high concentrations of pollutants can have a disproportionately high impact on health” explains Mar Álvarez-Pedrerol, ISGlobal researcher and first author of the study. “The detrimental effects may be particularly marked in children because of their smaller lung capacity and higher respiratory rate,” she adds.

The study was carried out in Barcelona and enrolled over 1,200 children aged from 7 to 10, from 39 schools, all of whom walked to school on a daily basis. The children’s working memory and attention capacity was assessed several times during the 12-month study. Their exposure to air pollution over the same period was calculated on the basis of estimated levels on the shortest walking route to their school.

Statistical analysis of the findings revealed that exposure to PM2.5 and black carbon was associated with a reduction in the growth of working memory: an interquartile range increase in PM 2.5 and black carbon levels was associated with a decline of 4.6% and 3.9%, respectively, in expected annual growth of working memory. No significant associations were found with exposure to NO2 and none of the pollutants studied were observed to have any effect on attention capacity. In this study, boys were much more sensitive than girls to the effects of both PM2.5 and black carbon.

“Above all, we do not want to create the impression that walking to school is bad for children’s health because the opposite is true: walking or cycling to school, which builds physical activity into the child’s daily routine, has health benefits that far outweigh any negative impact of air pollution” explains Jordi Sunyer, head of ISGlobal’s Child Health Programme and co-author of the study.

“The fact that children who walk to school may be more exposed to pollution does not mean that children who commute by car or on public transport are not also exposed to high levels. His colleague Mar Álvarez-Pedrerol goes on to explain “The solution is the same for everyone: reduce the use of private vehicles for the school run and create less polluted and safer home-to-school routes.”

This is the first time that a team of scientists has studied the potential impact on cognitive development of exposure to air pollution in children who walk to school.

Source: Air pollution exposure on home-to-school routes reduces the growth of working memory: Findings of an ISGlobal study underscore the importance of establishing school routes along less polluted streets — ScienceDaily

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ALS Study Links Long-term Air Pollution with Development of the Disease

Long-term exposure to air pollution increases the risk of a person developing amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a Dutch study shows.

The study, “Long-Term Air Pollution Exposure and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis in Netherlands: A Population-based Case–control Study,” appeared in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

Scientists say it’s likely that 90 to 95 percent of ALS cases stem from the interaction of genetic and environmental factors. Smoking is a well-known risk factor for ALS. But there has been a shortage of information on other factors that may help trigger the disease.

Researchers have linked long-term exposure to air pollution to cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. More recently, they have linked the pollution to neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. But little information has been available about pollution’s association with ALS.

Based on toxicological and animal studies, researchers have hypothesized that very small airborne particles may cross or disrupt the blood-brain barrier. This may cause chronic brain inflammation, oxidative stress, and abnormalities in the brain’s white matter, collectively contributing to ALS, they have speculated. Oxidative stress is an imbalance between the body’s production of free radicals, which can damage tissue,  and its ability to counteract their harmful effects.

Scientists have found higher concentrations of fine air particles in the brains of people living in big population centers than in those living in less polluted areas.

The Dutch researchers decided to see if there were a link between long-term exposure to air pollution and people’s susceptibility to ALS.

Leaders of the research effort were Leonard H. van den Berg, a full professor of Neurology & Neurosurgery at the University Medical Center Utrecht, and Roel C.H. Vermeulen, an associate professor of Molecular Epidemiology and Risk Assessment at Utrech University’s Institute for Risk Assessment Sciences.

The team did a seven-year population-based study from January 2006 to January 2013 that involved 917 ALS patients and 2,662 controls. They used models from the European Study of Cohorts for Air Pollution Effects (ESCAPE) project to determine annual mean air pollution levels, starting in 1992.

They discovered that people exposed to the highest levels of nitrogen oxides and to fine particles in the air were at significantly higher risk of developing ALS than others. Fine particles are more likely to penetrate into the lungs and other organs.

All these air pollutants are traffic-related and therefore more concentrated in urban areas.

The nitrogen oxide and fine particulate results remained significant even after researchers accounted for the degree of urbanization where patients lived.

Researchers said the results gibed with previous studies showing that being exposed to hazardous air aromatic solvents increases the risk of someone developing ALS. They also found an elevated risk of ALS among truck and bus drivers, and machine workers and operators, underscoring a reported association between ALS and diesel exhaust.

Overall, the Dutch study provided “evidence for the association between long-term exposure to traffic-related air pollution and increased susceptibility to ALS,” the researchers wrote. “Our findings further support the necessity for regulatory public health interventions to combat air pollution levels and provide additional insight into the potential pathophysiology of ALS.”

Future studies should aim to replicate these findings in other populations, the team said.

Source: ALS Study Links Long-term Air Pollution with Development of the Disease

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Government ‘failed to clean up air’ 

New figures show the UK government failed to reduce illegal levels of air pollution in the 18 months after a court ordered it to clean up the air.

At the end of 2016, the UK still had the same number of zones with illegal air pollution as in 2015.

That’s despite being under a Supreme Court order at the time to bring down nitrogen dioxide emissions – mainly from transport – as soon as possible.

The government said it had put in place a £3bn plan to improve air quality.

Ministers have been forced to increase their ambition on pollution by a succession of court defeats to an environmental campaign group, ClientEarth.

Its chief executive James Thornton said: “These statistics show how ministers are failing to protect people from air pollution, which is blighting the lives of thousands of people across the country.

“We’re deeply saddened to see how little progress was made last year and we will keep up the pressure to tackle this public health crisis, so that all of us – particularly young children – are protected from harmful pollution.”

In July, the government produced its second air pollution plan ordered by the court.

But in the plan, most of the responsibility was passed to local councils. And they say they’re not being adequately funded to make improvements in air quality like improving public transport or re-engineering the streets.

A government spokesman said: “We will end the sale of new diesel and petrol cars by 2040, and next year we will publish a comprehensive Clean Air Strategy which will set out further steps to tackle air pollution.

“We now have an opportunity to deliver a Green Brexit and improve environmental standards as we leave the EU.”

Source: Government ‘failed to clean up air’ – BBC News

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