Crystals of smashed cement, the perfect size for lodging in lungs,
made up most of the dust rising from the World Trade Center.
When ten million of tons of building, mixed with 91,000 liters of jet fuel, collapse into a smoking heap, an incredible variety of pulverized materials rise into the air. Though no one took samples of the plume that rose up from the World Trade Center on 9/11, samples of the dust that filtered down in the following days and gas emanating from the pile have given a glimpse of what rescue workers and others breathed in: heavy metals from computers, cellulose from paper, shards of metal and stone from the buildings’ walls, calcium carbonate from the tons of smashed cement, fibers from rugs, fragments of glass and burned hair.
What’s the News: Scientists have for the first time directly linked freeway vehicle emissions with brain damage. Scientists used a new technique that involved trapping airborne toxins along Los Angeles’ 110 Freeway, freezing them in water, and exposing lab mice to the toxins. “As a society, we need to figure out ways to minimize the level of the very, very nasty particulates we are dumping into the air we breathe,” University of Southern California gerontology researcher Todd Morgan told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s having terrible consequences.” Read More
Are we finally going to clean the skies of smog-causing nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide? The Environmental Protection Agency proposes new rules this week that would force power plants in 31 states, mostly in the East, to cut emissions of both to more than half of their 2005 levels by 2014.
The new rules take advantage of the “good neighbor” provision of the Clear Air Act to cut interstate transport—not cars and trucks, but the drift of air pollutants across state borders. (Air pollution, not unlike oil spills, does not respect the lines of the map) [TIME].
The Bush Administration tried to adopt a similar rule, but two years ago a U.S. Court of Appeals said the EPA had overstepped its bounds and nixed the regulations.
As a result, many power companies scaled back their investments in pollution controls. Now those companies will have to decide whether it is more cost-effective to retrofit their dirtiest power plants or shut them down [Los Angeles Times].
The Obama administration’s proposal sets a primary standard for ground-level ozone of no more than 0.060 to 0.070 parts per million, to be phased in over two decades. Regions with the worst smog pollution, including much of the Northeast, Southern and Central California and the Chicago and Houston areas, would have more time than other areas to come into compliance [The New York Times]. The previous standard was 0.075 parts per million, set in 2008 despite government scientists’ objection that it was not strict enough. Smog is formed when a stew of nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, and methane is baked in sunlight.
The new standard won’t be cheap, but proponents say it will save money, and lives, in the long run. The EPA estimates that by 2020 the proposal will cost $19 billion to $90 billion to implement and will yield health benefits worth $13 billion to $100 billion. The proposal would result in 1,500 to 12,000 avoided premature deaths by 2020, though the precise number depends on what limit the agency adopts [Washington Post]. Smog is linked to a wide variety of heart and respiratory diseases. Currently, a majority of the counties that are required to monitor ozone levels would not meet the new standard. If the 0.070 limit is adopted, 515 of the 675 counties that monitor ozone levels would be out of compliance.
Every winter, a thick cloud of brown smog settles over South Asia, stretching from southern China, across India and Pakistan, to the northern reaches of the Indian Ocean. For everyone who lives with the so-called “Asian brown cloud,” this air pollution is just a fact of life. Pilot John Horwood says the worse part about flying into Hong Kong is the suffocating, two-mile-thick blanket of pollution that hovers between 15 and 18,000 feet. “The whole cockpit fills with an acrid smell,” says Horwood, who started noticing the cloud in 1997. “Each year it just gets worse and worse” [Time]. But scientists have long puzzled over the cloud’s source: Is it produced by burning biomass, or by the combustion of fossil fuels?
Now researchers have analyzed the cloud’s composition, and found that two-thirds of the haze is produced by burning biomass, primarily the wood and dung burned to heat houses and cook food throughout the region. This research is the first step to doing something about the brown haze, which is linked to hundreds of thousands of deaths — mainly from lung and heart disease — each year in the region, they said. “Doing something about this brown cloud has been difficult because the sources are poorly understood,” said Orjan Gustafsson [Reuters], the study’s lead author.
It may be a platitude that fresh, clean air is good for you, but now researchers have quantified how much cleaning up air pollution has improved the public health: It has boosted the lifespan of the average American city-dweller by five months.
Coauthor Majid Ezzatin explains that when his team examined three decades of health data from 51 U.S. cities, researchers found that people are living about three years longer than they did before. Controlling for changes in income, education, demographics and smoking, about five months of that can be chalked up to air improvements…. “Rather than just saying pollution is bad for health,” he said, “we can say that regulations are good for health” [Wired News].