Coronavirus pandemic leading to huge drop in air pollution

‘Largest scale experiment ever’ shows what is possible as satellite images reveal marked fall in global nitrogen dioxide levels

Pollution levels in China in 2019, left, and 2020. Photograph: Guardian Visuals / ESA satellite data

The coronavirus pandemic is shutting down industrial activity and temporarily slashing air pollution levels around the world, satellite imagery from the European Space Agency shows.

One expert said the sudden shift represented the “largest scale experiment ever” in terms of the reduction of industrial emissions.

Readings from ESA’s Sentinel-5P satellite show that over the past six weeks, levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) over cities and industrial clusters in Asia and Europe were markedly lower than in the same period last year.

Nitrogen dioxide is produced from car engines, power plants and other industrial processes and is thought to exacerbate respiratory illnesses such as asthma.

While not a greenhouse gas itself, the pollutant originates from the same activities and industrial sectors that are responsible for a large share of the world’s carbon emissions and that drive global heating.

Paul Monks, professor of air pollution at the University of Leicester, predicted there will be important lessons to learn. “We are now, inadvertently, conducting the largest-scale experiment ever seen,” he said. “Are we looking at what we might see in the future if we can move to a low-carbon economy? Not to denigrate the loss of life, but this might give us some hope from something terrible. To see what can be achieved.”

Monks, the former chair of the UK government’s science advisory committee on air quality, said that a reduction in air pollution could bring some health benefits, though they were unlikely to offset loss of life from the disease.

“It seems entirely probable that a reduction in air pollution will be beneficial to people in susceptible categories, for example some asthma sufferers,” he said. “It could reduce the spread of disease. A high level of air pollution exacerbates viral uptake because it inflames and lowers immunity.” Agriculture could also get a boost because pollution stunts plant growth, he added.

The World Health Organization describes NO2 as “a toxic gas which causes significant inflammation of the airways” at concentrations above 200 micrograms per cubic metre. Pollution particles may also be a vector for pathogens, as well as exacerbating existing health problems. The WHO is now investigating whether airborne pollution particles may be a vector that spreads Covid-19 and makes it more virulent. MORE

It’s not only health impacts. Polluted air is affecting the crops of California

The state lost up to US$1 billion in crops per year.

More than 90% of the planet breathes unhealthy air, leading to seven million premature deaths per year and billions of dollars in extra costs for health services. But that’s not the single problem, as pollutants are also affecting the yield of food crops and their nutritional quality.

 

Food contributes to air pollution, releasing nitrogen compounds into the air. In turn, air pollution can impact food production. Ozone emissions react to form ground-level ozone, penetrating into the structure of the plant and affecting its ability to develop — a phenomenon seen across the globe.

California is not an exception. The state has lost up to US$1 billion in crops each year between 1980 and 2015 due to smog, according to a new study. Crops including grapes, strawberries, walnuts, peaches, nectarines, and hay lost between 2% and 22% of their yield over this period.

Having lower yields means bad news for California, which relies on agriculture as one of its main sources of income, and for the country as a whole, as the state is the largest agricultural producer, producing a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts.

Nevertheless, there might be a light at the end of the tunnel for California. The state has stepped up its game to reduce pollution over the years and if it continues doing so the efforts will likely pay off, the researchers estimate.

“The farming community can see improvements in yields related to a decrease in this ground-level ozone. If that continued, we could even see further improvements in the yields of these sensitive crops,” Steven Davis, an associate professor at the University of California Irvine and coauthor of the study.

Other studies previously looked at the effect of air pollution on staple crops such as wheat, soy, and rice. Now, Davis and the group of researchers decided to focus on different crops, known as perennials. These are more valuable than staples and have longer lifespans, meaning they could be more vulnerable to pollution.

The team analyzed pollution exposure and crop yields from 1980 to 2015, and also looked at the effects of warming on these perennial crops. They also projected crop yield changes up to 2050, expecting a decline in the that would boost wine grape production by 5% and nectarines by 8%.

“These aren’t the things that are providing the global population with its main source of calories. These are the sweet things in life – fruits, nuts and grapes for wine,” Davis said. “Also, monetarily, some of these crops are a lot more valuable than wheat or corn.”

The results of the study can be applied to other farming areas, according to the researchers, who now want to look at the trajectory of California’s energy systems and what benefits they might have for specific crops. “We can start analyzing trade-offs of water use and energy and try to inform the policymakers about the most cost-effective and beneficial ways to go,” Davis said. SOURCE

How India’s Silicon Valley is using tech to tackle traffic

Bangalore is the world's most congested city, but car-sharing and scooter-hire apps could help cut traffic.

Bangalore is the world’s most congested city, but car-sharing and scooter-hire apps could help cut traffic.

London (CNN)Imagine being stuck in traffic for 243 hours, equivalent to just over 10 days. Rush hour commuters in Bangalore, a city in southern India, spent around that time in traffic last year.

The city has the worst congestion in the world, according to the 2019 TomTom Traffic Index, overtaking Mumbai, which held the title for the previous two years.
Bangalore’s rapid expansion as India’s tech capital is partly responsible. The number of cars on the roads has rocketed from 1.4 million in 2000 to more than 8 million in 2019.
But tech could also provide the solution, as startups have sprung up to break the gridlock.
Bangalore's scooter rental start-up Bounce is booming, recently valued at $500 million.

Take Bounce, a Bangalore-based scooter-hire company with a fleet of more than 17,000 electric and gasoline vehicles in its home city. Customers can rent a scooter via its app for as little as 14 rupees (19 cents) an hour.
Founded in 2014, Bounce now operates in more than 30 cities in India with both a docked and dockless model, where you can pick up or drop off the bike anywhere in the city. It claims more than 120,000 rides are taken on its scooters in Bangalore every day.
In January, the startup received a fresh $105 million in funding, taking its overall capital to more than $200 million, Varun Agni, its CTO and co-founder, tells CNN Business. This led to its latest public valuation of $500 million, he adds.
While the initial motivation behind Bounce was “democratizing the commute” and providing affordable access to mobility for all, one major byproduct has been a reduction in traffic, says Agni.
Four in 10 users start or end at a subway station, he says. “This has a massive impact on reducing traffic and congestion,” as it encourages people to use public transport rather than using a car for the whole trip, he adds.
It also has an impact on the environment, especially as the company introduces more electric scooters to its fleet; by the end of the year, at least half of its vehicles will be electric, says Agni.

Cutting cars and carbon emissions

Transportation is the biggest source of harmful emissions in Bangalore, according to air quality research group Urban Emissions Info.
Quick Ride, a carpooling company also founded in Bangalore, aims to create a sustainable commuting option while cutting the number of vehicles on the roads, reducing fuel consumption and minimizing CO2 emissions, the company tells CNN Business.
It estimates it has saved 90,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions since its founding in 2015, equivalent to that emitted by 19,000 passenger vehicles in one year.
Using its app, drivers connect with passengers on the same route and fill their empty car seats. Quick Ride’s system allows them to share the cost of the journey using fixed per-kilometer charges and it manages the payments through user accounts, removing the need for cash exchanges.
It operates in nine cities across India with a total of 3.5 million users, almost a third of which are based in Bangalore. The company says it has raised a total of $15.5 million in funding.
Heavy traffic in  Bangalore.

Companies including consulting firm Capgemini (CAPMF) have partnered with Quick Ride to encourage employees to carpool, as part of their corporate sustainability strategy.
More than 70% of employees signed up to Capgemini’s #CAReToShare campaign in 2019, and since the start of the program in 2017 they have clocked up more than 33 million kilometers in carpool journeys, the company says.
“This program was launched with the dual objective of making the daily commute for our employees more convenient, while trying to ease the pollution plaguing our cities,” Vijay Chandramohan, senior director of India’s corporate real estate services for Capgemini, tells CNN Business.
“Cities in India are growing at an exponential rate,” he says. “There is tremendous pressure on the city roads, leading to increasing traffic snarls and commute time resulting in frustration and loss of productivity.”
Lucky the city’s startups are on hand to help. SOURCE

 

Delhi’s inventive answer to the electric car

The rise of the electric three-wheeler could help to reduce India’s emissions and improve air quality, but how can this niche vehicle compete on Delhi’s busy streets?

The sleek Dwarka metro station towers against the industrial landscape of Delhi, a busy stop on the city’s modern train network, which moves millions of people every day. Just outside, the road is bustling with rickshaws, ready to drive passengers to their next stop for as little as 20 rupees (21p). Moving on three wheels is a popular way of navigating the Indian capital and other major cities, where huge traffic jams mean you can get stuck at any point of the journey if you are traveling by car.

For long distances, you can hop on an “auto” rickshaw powered by a conventional engine; for a short trip there are pedal and electric rickshaws. And while e-rickshaws are still a relatively rare sight, the humble three-wheeler is ushering in India‘s electric revolution.

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In regions such as Europe and China, cars dominate the electric vehicle market. In contrast, “Indian electrification is not a car story at all. It’s an e-rickshaw and a two-wheeler story,” says Akshima Ghate, a lead researcher at the non-profit Rocky Mountain Institute based in Delhi. This perhaps isn’t surprising as car ownership in India is low, at around 20 cars per 1,000 people, compared with more than 800 per 1,000 in the United States.

Rickshaws are a popular vehicle to take passengers on the final leg of their journey (Credit: Lou Del Bello)

Transitioning to electric mobility is a particularly appealing prospect in India because it addresses several problems at the same time – air pollution first and foremost. Every year, new scientific evidence puts the contribution of air pollution to early mortality into sharper focus; the State of Global Air report estimates that in 2017 alone, air pollution contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths in India. The life of a child born today in India will be an average of two years and six months shorter than it would have been without toxic air, due to the increased risk of conditions such as cancer, lung and heart disease, according to the State of Global Air. Children in buggies and prams also receive a higher dose of air pollution than adults due to their low elevation above the ground.

And there are other motivations besides health for a transition away from conventional engines. “From a policy perspective,” Ghate says, “there are energy security concerns. We cannot afford to continue staying reliant [on] oil imports, it’s too risky for a big economy in a big country like India.”

Until recently, she explains, electric vehicles and the charging infrastructure needed to support their circulation were a luxury that only rich countries could afford. Now, “the falling cost of technology is making them a feasible option”, she says. Currently, however, the bulk of the energy that powers India’s grid still comes from fossil fuels, so “clean” electric vehicles are still associated with those emissions.

Even so, electric vehicles are typically more carbon-efficient than those with an internal combustion engine over their lifetime. In the case of electric cars this figure has been found to depend on factors such as how much an area’s grid uses renewable energy or fossil fuels, as well as how much use the vehicle gets (due to the additional aluminium, copper and lithium required to manufacture an electric vehicle).

Car ownership in India is low compared with nations such as the US, with smaller vehicles making up a higher proportion (Credit: Lou Del Bello)

But, in Delhi, there has been little hesitation in the uptake of electric rickshaws – already there are thought to be more than 1.5 million on the streets in India. At Dwarka station, drivers are busy getting enough passengers on board to start the ride. An electric rickshaw can carry up to four people. These small rickshaws cover what is known as the “last mile” – the short distance connecting mass-transport stops to travellers’ end destinations, be that another station, a nearby office or home.

“E-rickshaws have emerged as a source of employment for many poor urban households,” says Shri Prakash, a transport and urban governance expert with the Energy and Resources Institute in Delhi. “They are light, low powered and reach a normal speed of 10-15kmph (6-9mph). With a shorter trip length than autos, that are able to carry passengers up to 15km at higher speeds, e-rickshaws serve a unique and well-established market niche.”

With today’s clear sky, you can almost forget that Delhi still is one of the most polluted cities in the world, albeit one that on most days just keeps moving despite the smog. Passengers and drivers alike ditch pollution masks, which feel stuffy and don’t protect you anyway, as many put it. Electric mobility may help solve this crisis, but on the ground it’s mostly a business opportunity.

A small group of drivers enjoying a break from the traffic explain that an increasing number of start-ups are encouraging the uptake of e-rickshaws by renting vehicles for as low as 15 rupees (16p) per day. One company paid their drivers a generous daily rate of 800 rupees (£8.49) – which is about double the average for urban workers – for a limited period of time to encourage them to join the scheme.

There are more than 1.5 million electric rickshaws in India already, but they are still far outnumbered by conventional auto-rickshaws (Credit: Getty Images)

Ten per cent of northeast B.C. oil and gas wells leak — more than double the reported rate in Alberta: new study

A survey of the province’s database shows wellbores releasing 14,000 cubic metres of methane — a potent greenhouse gas — every single day amid weak regulations and inconsistent monitoring

Gas well Farmington B.C.

A well on farmland near Farmington, in B.C.’s northeast where there has been a fracking boom in recent years. Photo: Garth Lenz / The Narwhal

Northeastern British Columbia has been a major centre of conventional oil and gas production since the 1960s. More recently, the shale gas sector has also targeted the region.

One of the issues the oil and gas industry faces is the leakage of gases from wellbores — the holes drilled into the ground to look for or recover oil and natural gas. Methane leakage from wellbores has become an important issue because this greenhouse gas is far more potent than carbon dioxide.

My colleagues and I recently examined a database containing information about 21,525 active and abandoned wells located in the four main shale gas formations of northeastern British Columbia: the Montney, Horn River, Liard and Cordova basins. This represents almost all of the conventional and shale gas wells existing in the region.

Our study was the first to examine the data contained in the British Columbia Oil and Gas Commission Wellbore (OCG) Leakage Database.

We found that almost 11 per cent of all oil and gas wells had a reported leak, together releasing 14,000 cubic metres of methane per day. This is more than double the leakage rate of 4.6 per cent in Alberta, which may have less stringent testing and reporting requirements.

Our research in northeastern B.C. also found weak regulations on mandatory reporting, continued monitoring and the use of protective measures — oversights that represent risks for the environment.

Shale Gas Plays Northeast B.C. Map The Narwhal

A map showing the location of B.C.’s main shale gas plays. Map: Carol Linnitt / The Narwhal

Deficiencies in wellbore design, construction a concern

Shale gas, principally methane, is exploited through the combined techniques of horizontal drilling and multi-stage hydraulic fracturing (fracking). Shale gas fracking has increased as conventional gas reserves have declined after decades of exploitation.

Northeastern B.C.’s shale gas reserves are estimated to hold 10,000 billion cubic metres of methane, enough to supply worldwide consumption for almost three years.

All modern oil and gas wells are constructed in a wellbore, which typically traverses many geologic layers containing brines and hydrocarbons. Fracking involves the deep underground high-pressure injection of large volumes of water, sand and chemicals into the wellbore, to fracture the rock and release the natural gas, petroleum and brines. Pipes and sealants (usually cement) placed in the wellbore protect it against collapse and squeezing, and prevent fluids from moving between geologic layers.

But these structures are not always fail-safe. Deficiencies in the design or construction of the wellbore, or weakening of the pipe or sealant over time, can connect layers that would naturally remain geologically isolated. In a deficient well, the buoyancy of the underground gas causes the fluids to be pushed towards the surface through these connections.

Wellbore leakage can occur along actively producing wells or wells that have been permanently abandoned after their productive life is over.

The possibility of leakage from these wells has raised environmental concerns, especially since leaky wells are likely under-reported.

In addition to the release of greenhouse gases, which contribute to global warming and climate change, these leaking wells could contaminate groundwater and surface water with hydrocarbons, chemicals contained in fracking fluids and brines.

Public health and environmental consequences of leaky wells

There are three main consequences to public health and the environment from wellbore leakage:

  1. The contamination of aquifers and surface waters from gases, brines, liquid hydrocarbons and hydraulic fracturing fluids.
  2. The contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, especially from venting methane.
  3. The explosion of methane accumulated in poorly ventilated areas.

According to the B.C. OGC database, leakage had occurred in 2,329 of 21,525 tested wells.

Altogether, these leaking wellbores are releasing greenhouse gases equivalent to 75,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. This is roughly equivalent to the emissions from 17,000 passenger vehicles.

Unfortunately, there is no record of the frequency of testing for wellbore leakage in B.C., nor are there requirements to monitor deep aquifers near oil and gas wells for contamination.

Although current regulations stipulate that all incidences of leakage must be repaired prior to well abandonment, there is no monitoring program in place for leakage after wells have been permanently plugged, buried and abandoned.

There is also the possibility that the venting gases will contain hydrogen sulphide gas, which is poisonous and deadly at high concentrations.

Leaks under-reported

Only wells that show wellbore leakage must be reported to the B.C. OGC and included in the database. According to regulations, all wells drilled after 2010 should be tested after initial completion and all wells drilled after 1995 tested upon abandonment.

There is no monitoring program in place for the inspection of wells that have already been abandoned. These abandoned wells could leak for a long time before the leakage is detected and repaired. Recent studies have also documented methane emissions from abandoned oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania.

Shale gas exploitation can have environmental impacts long after a well has been abandoned. Provinces should implement regulations that require monitoring wells after abandonment, reporting the results and applying corrective measures to stop leaks from abandoned wells.

To this day, very few field investigations have been carried out in B.C. to directly monitor the leakage from abandoned wells. One showed that 35 per cent of investigated abandoned wells exhibit emissions of methane and hydrogen sulphide gas or a combination of both.

The discrepancy between the database reports and the field study — as well as recent observations that human-made methane emissions are underestimated by 25 per cent to 40 per cent — suggests that wellbore leakages in B.C. may go unreported.

To improve health and environmental safety, active surveillance and monitoring are necessary. SOURCE

 

 

Greenhouse gas 12,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide generated mainly in China and India is being released into the atmosphere at record levels, a new study claims

  • One tonne of HFC-23 emissions is equal to 12,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide
  • It is a by-product of cooling systems in developing nations like China and India
  • A 2017 report from those countries suggested it had been almost eliminated
  • The atmospheric readings from this study contradict those 2017 findings 

A greenhouse gas 12,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide and generated mainly in China and India is being released at record levels, a new study claims

A greenhouse gas 12,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide and generated mainly in China and India is being released at record levels, a new study claims

Scientists were expecting to see global emissions drop by almost 90 percent between 2015 and 2017 as a result of the India and China claims.

It is a particularly potent gas, with one tonne of its emissions equal to the release of more than 12,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide, study authors say.

Over the last two decades, scientists have been keeping a close eye on the atmospheric concentration of a hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) gas due to its potency.

‘When we saw the reports of enormous emissions reductions from India and China, we were excited to take a close look at the data’, said Dr Matt Rigby, co-author.

‘This potent greenhouse gas has been growing rapidly in the atmosphere for decades now, and these reports suggested that the rise should have almost completely stopped in the space of two or three years.

‘This would have been a big win for climate.’

The fact that this reduction has not materialised, and that, instead, global emissions have actually risen, is a puzzle, he said.

In 2016 an amendment to the Montreal Protocol aimed to reduce the climate impact of HFCs whose emissions have grown due to them being used as replacement for ozone depleting substances.

Dr Kieran Stanley, the lead author of the study, said to be complaint with the ammendment countries who ratified the agreement had to destroy HFC-23 as far as possible before it enters the atmosphere.

‘Although China and India are not yet bound by the Amendment, their reported abatement would have put them on course to be consistent with it. However, it looks like there is still work to do’, Dr Stanley said.

‘Our study finds that it is very likely that China has not been as successful in reducing HFC-23 emissions as reported.

‘However, without additional measurements, we can’t be sure whether India has been able to implement its abatement programme.’

In 2016 an amendment to the Montreal Protocol aimed to reduce the climate impact of HFCs whose emissions have grown due to them being used as replacement for ozone depleting substances

Had the emissions reductions been as large as reported, the researchers estimate that the equivalent of a whole year of Spain’s CO2 emissions could have been avoided between 2015 and 2017.

‘The magnitude of the CO2-equivalent emissions shows just how potent this greenhouse gas is’, said Dr Rigby.

‘We now hope to work with other international groups to better quantify India and China’s individual emissions using regional, rather than global, data and models.’

Previous studies found that HFC-23 emissions declined between 2005 and 2010 as developed countries paid to remove it from developing countries factories.

The payment involved purchasing credits from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Clean Development Mechanism.

“In that case, the atmospheric data showed that emissions reductions matched the reports very well,’ said Dr Stanley.

However, the scheme was controversial as it was thought to create a perverse incentive for manufacturers to increase the amount of waste gas they generated in order to sell more credits.

The research has been published in the journal Nature Communications.

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WHAT IS HFC-23?

Installing air filters in classrooms has surprisingly large educational benefits

$1,000 can raise a class’s test scores by as much as cutting class size by a third.

A teacher sits at a work table with two young students.

Students at Lavrentyev Secondary School No 130 in Novosibirsk, Russia, on December 20, 2019. Kirill Kukhmar\TASS via Getty Images

An emergency situation that turned out to be mostly a false alarm led a lot of schools in Los Angeles to install air filters, and something strange happened: Test scores went up. By a lot. And the gains were sustained in the subsequent year rather than fading away.

That’s what NYU’s Michael Gilraine finds in a new working paper titled “Air Filters, Pollution, and Student Achievement” that looks at the surprising consequences of the Aliso Canyon gas leak in 2015.

The impact of the air filters is strikingly large given what a simple change we’re talking about. The school district didn’t reengineer the school buildings or make dramatic education reforms; they just installed $700 commercially available filters that you could plug into any room in the country. But it’s consistent with a growing literature on the cognitive impact of air pollution, which finds that everyone from chess players to baseball umpires to workers in a pear-packing factory suffer deteriorations in performance when the air is more polluted.

If Gilraine’s result holds up to further scrutiny, he will have identified what’s probably the single most cost-effective education policy intervention — one that should have particularly large benefits for low-income children.

And while it’s too hasty to draw sweeping conclusions on the basis of one study, it would be incredibly cheap to have a few cities experiment with installing air filters in some of their schools to get more data and draw clearer conclusions about exactly how much of a difference this makes.

The Aliso Canyon gas leak, explained

Back on October 23, 2015, employees of the Southern California Gas Company discovered a massive leak in the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility near Porter Ranch in the San Fernando Valley. Significant for the larger purposes of the study, the Porter Ranch area is known for having “some of the cleanest air in the Valley year-round.”

The gas leak was a huge catastrophe from the standpoint of greenhouse gas emissions, but also naturally raised concerns in the local community about the immediate impact on public health.

Facing political pressure from concerned parents and teachers, Gilraine writes, “the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and the owner of the gas well, the Southern California Gas Company, placed air filters in every classroom, office and common area in all schools within five miles of the gas leak at the end of January 2016.”

Strikingly, however, air testing conducted around the time of the installation of the filters shows that the schools didn’t actually have abnormally high levels of the kinds of pollution that are normally associated with natural gas. Methane is lighter than air, and by the time the filters were installed — nearly three months after the leak — the extra pollution caused was all the way up in the sky and not affecting school buildings.

Consequently, the installation of the filters served not to remove extra contamination caused by the leak, but simply to clean up the normal amount of background indoor air pollution present in the Valley. That lets Gilraine estimate the difference in student performance for schools just inside the boundary compared to those just outside.

He finds that math scores went up by 0.20 standard deviations and English scores by 0.18 standard deviations, and the results hold up even when you control for “detailed student demographics, including residential ZIP Code fixed effects that help control for a student’s exposure to pollution at home.”

For context, this is comparable in scale to some of the most optimistic studies on the potential benefits of smaller class sizes, with Alan Krueger finding that cutting class size by a third leads to a 0.22 standard deviation improvement in academic performance. Other studies find smaller or even negative effects (because adding teachers means bringing in less experienced or less effective ones), but even accepting the positive findings, it costs much more than $700 per classroom to achieve class size reductions of that scale.

This is a big, but not implausible, number

The effect Gilraine finds is strikingly large given that it’s a seemingly trivial intervention.

But Sefi Roth of the London School of Economics studied university students’ test performance relative to air pollution levels on the day of the test aloneHe found that taking a test in a filtered rather than unfiltered room would raise test scores by 0.09 standard deviations. That’s about half the impact Gilraine found, just based on day-of-test air quality. In Gilraine’s natural experiment, students benefited from cleaner air for about four months. Given that context, it’s not incredibly surprising that you could see an impact that’s about twice as large.

What’s natural to ask — though unknowable from the study before us — is how much more change we could see if students benefited from an entire school year of clean air. Or perhaps an entire school career, from pre-K through high school graduation, of clean air.

One striking thing about this is the government has long been aware that indoor air pollution is a potential problem. But according to currently prevailing Indoor Air Quality standards, there was nothing wrong with the air in the schools. Filters were installed because of an essentially unwarranted panic about natural gas.

And while Los Angeles is a fairly high-pollution part of the country, outdoor particulate levels are higher in many areas — including New York, Chicago, and Houston — than they were in the impacted neighborhood. In other words, there’s no reason to think the impacted schools were unusually deficient in their air quality. They just happen to be the ones that installed filters.

A cheap, scalable initiative

For a sense of scale, Mathematica Policy Research’s best evidence on the effectiveness of the highly touted KIPP charter school network finds that after three years at KIPP there is significant improvement on three out of four test metrics — up 0.25 standard deviations on one English test, 0.22 standard deviations on another, and 0.28 standard deviations on one of two math tests.

Those are big gains, and they help explain why there is so much enthusiasm about KIPP in some quarters, even as charter schools remain politically controversial and charters in general seem to produce roughly average results.

This is bigger than the impact of letting kids benefit from clean air for four months. But installing the full suite of air filters costs about $1,000 per classroom, and continuing to operate them beyond the first year is cheaper than that. And best of all, unlike totally reworking school operations, it could be scaled up very quickly.

It would be almost trivially easy to get a variety of school districts all around the country to randomly select schools for the installation of air filters. That would rapidly generate a ton of additional data, and if the results continued to be promising, the initiative could be made universal very quickly.

The benefits, on their face, would be extremely large at a relatively low cost. And since air pollution is generally worse in lower-income communities, you would not only raise test scores nationally, but make progress on the big socioeconomic gaps in student achievement that have proven very difficult to remedy. SOURCE

‘It’s Going to Be a Blast Furnace’: Australia Fires Intensify

Calling for evacuations along the southeastern coast, officials said the next few days would be among the worst yet in an already catastrophic fire season.

INVERLOCH, Australia — They fled from looming firestorms that threatened to cut off their escape, only to join a slog alongside the masses of others who crowded the roads. Thousands more waited for rescue by sea.

Across the scorched southeast, frightened Australians — taking a few cherished things, abandoning their homes and vacation rentals, and braving smoke that discolored the skies — struggled Thursday to evacuate as wildfires turned the countryside into charcoal wasteland.

And from government officials came a disheartening warning: This weekend will be one of the worst periods yet in Australia’s catastrophic fire season.

“It’s going to be a blast furnace,” Andrew Constance, the transport minister of New South Wales, told The Sydney Morning Herald.

Monitoring a fire on Thursday in East Gippsland, Victoria, where 17 people were missing.
Credit…Darrian Traynor/Getty Images

 

The blazes have strained the country’s firefighting resources, and the fire season, though still young, already ranks as among the worst in Australia’s recorded history.

The state of New South Wales declared an emergency in its southeastern region on Thursday, calling on residents and vacationers to evacuate. Mr. Constance said the relocation was the largest in the region’s history.

To the south, the state of Victoria declared a disaster on Thursday, allowing it to authorize the evacuation of areas along its eastern coast.

Using any means they could find, the authorities were warning people to evacuate. But with communication in some areas spotty to nonexistent, it was not clear that everyone would get the message.

NSW RFS

@NSWRFS

Leave Zone – Batlow / Wondalga
Dangerous conditions in Batlow, west of Blowering Dam. If you’re in this area, particularly Batlow north to Wondalga & west of Blowering Dam, leave before tomorrow. It is not safe. For road closures go to @LiveTrafficNSW

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In just the past week, at least nine people have died, and many more are unaccounted for. In all, at least 18 people have died in this fire season.

The blazes have consumed more than 1,000 houses, killed countless animals and ravaged a Pacific coast region of farms, bush, eucalyptus forests, mountains, lakes and vacation spots. About 15 million acres have been blackened over the past four months, and more than 100 wildfires are still burning.

With the Southern Hemisphere summer barely underway and the country already reeling from record-breaking heat, no one expects relief any time soon. No rain is in the forecast

Lake Conjola, in New South Wales.
Credit…Robert Oerlemans, via Associated Press 

“We’re still talking four to six weeks at best before we start to see a meaningful reprieve in the weather,” Shane Fitzsimmons, the rural fire commissioner for the state of New South Wales, told reporters.

In Mallacoota, a coastal town in Victoria state, the Australian Navy on Friday began ferrying to safety some of the 4,000 people trapped there when flames cut off all escape routes on land.

People camped on the beach and slept in small boats, they said, trying to shield themselves from flying embers as the inferno moved toward them. The heavy smoke meant only a few people with medical problems could be evacuated by helicopter.

Among those on the beach was Justin Brady, a musician who just moved from Melbourne to Mallacoota, about 250 miles to the east. He managed to salvage a fiddle, a mandolin and some harmonicas before abandoning the home he built and its contents to the flames.

“It’s been pretty heavy,” he said.

People were evacuated from the coastal town of Mallacoota by the Royal Australian Navy on Friday.
Credit…Royal Australian Navy 

Others nearby were not nearly so measured, venting their anger at the national and state governments, which they said had not taken the crisis seriously enough.

Michael Harkin, who lives in Sydney and was vacationing in Mallacoota, complained of “incompetent governance” that is “not keeping us safe at all.”

“I’m looking forward to getting somewhere that isn’t here,” he said.

The emergency services minister of New South Wales, David Elliott, drew withering criticism on social media after he left the country on Tuesday for a vacation in Britain and France. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that he said he would return “if the bushfire situation should demand it.”

Mr. Elliott’s departure came just weeks after Prime Minister Scott Morrison was widely ridiculed for taking a vacation in Hawaii during the crisis. He cut his trip short.

The Navy ship that arrived at Mallacoota, the HMAS Choules, delivered food, water and medical supplies, and was expected to leave with hundreds of evacuees. Once it is far enough from shore, the sickest people can be taken away by helicopter.

Inspecting the wreckage of a fire truck that veered off a dirt track near Lake Conjola on Tuesday as a fire approached.
Credit…Matthew Abbott for The New York Times 

The Choules will return for more people, officials said, but it will be a slow process; the trip to a safe port in the sprawling country is expected to take 17 hours. Many of the people aboard the cramped ship will have to spend most of that time sitting on the open deck.

The evacuation orders have been easier to make than to carry out.

Two-lane roads are carrying highway-level traffic, and some roads have been closed by the fires or blocked by downed trees and power lines. Long lines of cars snake around gas stations, tanks run dry, and drives that would normally take two hours last half a day or more.

The state premier of Victoria, Daniel Andrews, said 17 people were still missing as fires swept alpine resorts and the normally bucolic Gippsland area.

Thousands of people have gone days without electricity or phone service. With cell towers destroyed but landlines still working, long lines formed at pay phones, creating scenes from another era. Officials advised people to boil water before using it, after power failures knocked out local water treatment facilities.
Cars lined up waiting to leave Manyana in New South Wales on Thursday.
Credit…Matthew Abbott for The New York Times

 

Stores have run short of essentials like diapers, baby formula, bread and bottled water. With lodgings full, many people fleeing the fires have been forced to sleep in their cars.

Businesses with generators have continued to operate, but some have run out of fuel, and others are near that point.

Craig Scott, the manager of a supermarket in Ulladulla, a beach town about 100 miles south of Sydney, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that he planned to keep the generator there running by siphoning fuel from the tanks of fishing boats. He said the store had just gotten the generator a few months ago, when no one imagined how desperately it would be needed.

So vast and intense are the fires that they can create their own weather, generating winds as they suck in fresh air at ground level, and sparking lightning in the immense ash clouds that rise from them.

Canberra, Australia’s capital, recorded the worst air quality ever measured on Thursday; the largest city, Sydney, has been suffering through intense smoke for weeks; and ash from the blazes has darkened skies and coated glaciers in New Zealand, more than a thousand miles away.

The fires have set off anger at Prime Minister Morrison, in particular. He has played down the role of global warming, opposed measures to combat climate change and, at least initially, rejected additional funding for firefighters.
Dust and smoke from Australia’s bushfires are reaching New Zealand, with its effects visible in snow near Franz Josef Glacier.
Credit…Reuters

 

On Thursday, Mr. Morrison was heckled as he visited Cobargo, a New South Wales village where fires have killed two men and destroyed the main street. When he extended his hand to one woman, she said she would shake it only if he increased spending on firefighting.

“You won’t be getting any votes down here, buddy,” one man yelled. “You’re out, son.”

As Mr. Morrison left hurriedly, the man taunted him about returning to Kirribilli House, the prime minister’s elegant official residence in Sydney, with spectacular views of the harbor and the city.

“I don’t see Kirribilli burning,” the man yelled.

Mr. Morrison said he understood residents’ frustration.

“I’m not surprised people are feeling very raw at the moment,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “That’s why I came today, to be here, to see it for myself, to offer what comfort I could.”

“I understand the very strong feelings people have — they’ve lost everything,” he said, adding that there were still “some very dangerous days ahead.”
Flames consumed trees along a road near Manyana, where hundreds of tourists were stranded.
Credit…Matthew Abbott for The New York Times

 

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Depression and suicide linked to air pollution in new global study

Cutting toxic air might prevent millions of people getting depression, research suggests

 Skopje in North Macedonia is Europe’s most polluted capital city according to the WHO. New research suggests links between air pollution and mental illness. Photograph: Georgi Licovski/EPA

People living with air pollution have higher rates of depression and suicide, a systematic review of global data has found.

Cutting air pollution around the world to the EU’s legal limit could prevent millions of people becoming depressed, the research suggests. This assumes that exposure to toxic air is causing these cases of depression. Scientists believe this is likely but is difficult to prove beyond doubt.

The particle pollution analysed in the study is produced by burning fossil fuels in vehicles, homes and industry. The researchers said the new evidence further strengthened calls to tackle what the World Health Organization calls the “silent public health emergency” of dirty air.

“We’ve shown that air pollution could be causing substantial harm to our mental health, making the case for cleaning up the air we breathe even more urgent,” said Isobel Braithwaite, at University College London (UCL), who led the research.

Meeting the EU limit could make a big difference, she said. “You could prevent about 15% of depression, assuming there is a causal relationship. It would be a very large impact, because depression is a very common disease and is increasing.” More than 264 million people have depression, according to the WHO.

“We know that the finest particulates from dirty air can reach the brain via both the bloodstream and the nose, and that air pollution has been implicated in increased [brain] inflammation, damage to nerve cells and to changes in stress hormone production, which have been linked to poor mental health,” Braithwaite said.

Joseph Hayes, also at UCL and part of the research team, said: “The evidence is highly suggestive that air pollution itself increases the risk of adverse mental health outcomes.”

Other research indicates that air pollution causes a “huge” reduction in intelligence and is linked to dementia. A comprehensive global review earlier in 2019 concluded that air pollution may be damaging every organ and virtually every cell in the human body. MORE

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Air pollution pushes mortality in Canadians: Study

This is despite the fact that the country has one of the lowest levels of air pollution in the world

The Toronto skyline. Photo: Getty Images
The Toronto skyline. Photo: Getty Images

Canadians are at higher risk of dying in areas that are highly polluted even though the country’s levels of air pollution are among the lowest in the world, a study has said.

The new research has been carried out by the University of British Columbia, in partnership with Statistics Canada, McGill University, Dalhousie University, University of New Brunswick and Oregon State University.

It is part of a larger international study commissioned by Health Effects Institute, a Boston-based non-profit that specialises in research on the health effects of air pollution.

In order to conduct the study, the researchers combined satellite data with a model of pollutant transport and chemistry, and ground-level air quality measurements, according to a press statement by the University of British Columbia.

They used the data to produce a pollution map which estimated Canadian air pollution levels by the square kilometre.

According to the press statement, the scientists also cross-referenced air pollution data with anonymous information of more than nine million Canadians as given in the national census.

The scientists found that there was a five per cent increase in the risk of deaths of Canadians when high- and low-pollution areas were compared.

This is despite the fact that Canada has one of the lowest air pollution levels in the world that are below national and international air quality guidelines. It is one of the few countries that meets World Health Organization (WHO) air quality guidelines as well as those set by Canadian Ambient Air Quality Standards.

During the course of the study, the researchers also found that new immigrants to the country were as susceptible to the health impacts of air pollution as residents.

This, they said, further proved that air pollution was affecting everybody in Canada.

NAPS Stations 2009 map

The researchers are currently working on an analysis that will show whether moving from an area of high pollution to one that is cleaner reduces death risks. SOURCE