Musings, politics and environmental issues

Posts tagged ‘air pollution’

Fireworks, tourists and air quality

It’s that time of year again. New Year’s Eve is approaching and in many countries fireworks are set off, either as organized displays by councils or by individuals. In Iceland, for example, the bulk of the funds from the country’s search and rescue service is provided by firework sales between 28 December and 6 January.

Fireworks are visually spectacular but have a drawback: when the weather is favourable for people to set them off, i.e. no wind or rain, the result can be a firework smog that is debilitating to people with asthma and breathing difficulties and can hang over a city for up to 12 hours, peaking in the first hour after midnight.

Iceland’s Environment Agency produced a report (in Icelandic) on air pollution from fireworks earlier this year. Although the only fireworks that may be sold are those that carry a CE quality label, this does not seem to cover the levels of arsenic, lead and other heavy metals, traces of which can be found in the particulate matter that often hangs over cities in the early hours of New Year.

Despite calls for limits on fireworks that may be sold to individuals in Iceland and other ways of funding the rescue services other than by fireworks, the Icelandic tourist industry has said that many tourists come to Iceland for New Year specifically to see the fireworks, and thus there should be no change to the traditional fireworks celebrations.

Over to Australia, where the traditional fireworks display over Sydney harbour is being questioned this year due to fire danger – Sydney is surrounded by fires and air quality is abysmal – the authorities are determined to go ahead, again partly due to pressure from the tourist industry.

Total madness.

Cruise ships pollute immensely while in harbour

I’d never thought much about cruise ships. But now I know better. This week, a team from the German NGO Nature and Biodiversity Union (NBU) have been measuring pollution around a harbour area of Reykjavik and discovered that while air quality in Reykjavik is generally “very, very good”, air pollution levels in the wind direction from arriving and departing cruise ships were up to 1000 times higher than local background concentrations.

The NBU were working with the Iceland Nature Conservation Association (INCA). Dr Axel Friedrich from NBU measures ultrafine particulates, down to 20 nm, which penetrate through lung walls and can lead to a heart attack. They also contribute to dementia, Parkinson’s disease and diabetes II. Within a period of 24 hours, one ship can release the same amount of ultrafine particulates as one million cars. Iceland doesn’t have the sort of equipment required to measure these ultrafine particles.

In European Emission Control Areas, ships are required to use environment-friendly diesel oil with a sulphur content of 0.1%. But apparently regulations are less stringent elsewhere, and ships switch from low-sulphur diesel to heavy fuel oil – which has a sulphur content of 3.5% – when they reach Icelandic waters. In theory, in Iceland boats with 12 passengers or more have to use fuel with a maximum sulphur content of 1.5%. There are also rules which stipulate that ships have to use diesel or electricity when in port. But no one is responsible for monitoring this. And cruise ships keep their engines running when in port as they are required to continue to offer services to passengers in port as well as at sea. One cruise ship in harbour emits as much sulphur dioxide over a 24-hour period as 317 million cars. On Monday, when the measurements were done, three cruise ships were docked in Reykjavik.

Black carbon (also known as soot) is also released in huge amounts from cruise ships due to inefficient burning and on windy days it can be carried to glaciers where it darkens the surface and thereby increases heat absorption, which leads to melting. Transport of heavy fuel oil can also cause havoc if an accident happens out in the ocean.

About 50,000 people die annually from the black carbon, sulphur emissions and nitrogen oxides emitted from ships.

This is a complex issue which is well worth investigating. Besides NABU, check out the Clean Arctic Alliance and its website, HFO Free Arctic.

Anyone want an article on this?




Farming newspapers carry a wealth of environmental information

Don’t discount the farming newspapers for information on environmental matters. The Icelandic farming paper, Baendabladid, usually comes out fortnightly and carries a wealth of information. Besides information on topics such as equestrian tournaments, haymaking and sheep farming, the current issue covers GMOs in livestock feed; withdrawal of organic certification of an Icelandic company because they continue to use mushroom compost; disappointment of local farmers to the placement of a potential hydropower site (Hvammur) in the Thjorsa river in the utiilisation rather than pending category of the Master Plan for utilisation of hydro and geothermal power stations; how whaling for no reason is spoiling Iceland’s image (Icelandic lamb is no longer advertised in the US Whole Foods chain of shops); killing of dolphins by tuna fishing boats; forest fires in oil palm plantations in Indonesia due to farmers burning forests to provide agricultural land – the fires also create bad air pollution; how investors and multinationals who buy up large tracts of agricultural land and get others to manage the properties for them are likely to use eco-unfriendly methods, which can also be detrimental to the health of the farmhands; eco-tourism; use of wild angelica (Angelica sylvestris) for treatment of prostate cancer; the need for an alternative way of thinking to stop the spread of cow parsley (Queen Anne’s lace) in North Iceland, WITHOUT using the herbicides Roundup or Clinic; and the possibility that hydrogen sulphide in the air in Iceland could be causing a high incidence of inflammation of the eyelids (blepharitis) and dry eye. Some of this information is covered elsewhere too in the Icelandic press, but much of it is not. Animal welfare issues are also covered.

The paper frequently covers energy-related topics as well, such as farmers who utilise their local area for energy, as well as farmers who revegetate barren areas. Some of the information is translated from foreign media, so the Icelandic newspaper is obviously not alone in its coverage of environmental matters.

Baendabladid is free and widely available. For those living elsewhere, a visit to the local library may be in order.


Majority of urban dwellers subject to carcinogenic air pollution

The European Environment Agency has just released a report that is quite horrifying: around 90% of residents in the EU/EEA are exposed to one or more of the most damaging air pollutants – particulate matter and ozone (O3) – although levels of lead (Pb), sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and carbon monoxide (CO) have decreased.  Here is an excerpt of the main findings:

Emissions of the main air pollutants in Europe declined in the period 2002–2011. This resulted in improved air quality across the region — at least with respect to certain pollutants. Certain individual sectors have seen emissions of some pollutants increase during this period. For example, PM emissions from fuel combustion in the commercial, institutional and household sector, has increased by around 7 % since 2002. This sector is now the most important contributor to total European Union PM emissions … However, due to the complex links between emissions and air quality (which include emission heights, chemical transformations, reactions to sunlight, additional natural and hemispheric contributions and the impact of weather and topography), emission reductions do not always produce a corresponding drop in atmospheric concentrations, especially for PM and O3. For example, while reductions of O3 forming substances (O3 precursor gases) have been substantial in Europe, ozone concentrations (in relation to the target value for the protection of health) have generally decreased slowly but have increased in places between 2002 and 2011.

The report goes on to explain that:

In terms of potential to harm human health, PM poses the greatest risk, as it penetrates into sensitive regions of the respiratory system and can lead to health problems and premature mortality. PM in the air has many sources and is a complex heterogeneous mixture. The sizes and chemical composition of this mixture can change in time and space, depending on emission sources and atmospheric and weather conditions.
PM in the atmosphere originates from:

  • primary particles emitted directly;
  • secondary particles produced as a result of chemical reactions involving PM forming (precursor) gases after their emission: SO2, NOX, NH3 and non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOC). When these gases react, they produce PM.

The size of PM is expressed in micrometers. The largest particles of concern are 10 microns in diameter or smaller (PM10). But the group of particles of most concern is 2.5 microns in diameter or smaller (PM2.5). Some of these are small enough to pass from the lung into the bloodstream … The health effects of PM are caused after their inhalation and penetration into the lungs and blood stream, leading to adverse effects in the respiratory, cardiovascular, immune, and neural systems. A fraction of ultrafine particles (with a diameter less than 0.1 microns) may even enter the brain directly through the nose.

In urban areas in the EU, 97-98% of the population is exposed to levels of ozone over WHO guidelines. With PM2.5 and PM 10, 91-96% and 85-88% of the population is exposed to levels above the WHO recommended guidelines respectively. A high proportion of the population, 76-94%, is also exposed to one of the damaging poly-aromatic hydrocarbons, benzo(a)pyrene (BaP), which is a known carcinogen.

Yesterday, just two days after the EEA report, the WHO announced that outdoor air pollution is a leading environmental cause of cancer deaths, in particular lung cancer but also bladder cancer. They evaluated PM separately and classified that too as carcinogenic. They say that the main sources of air pollution are transportation, stationary power generation, industrial and agricultural emissions, and residential heating and cooking.

The EEA also covered the effects of air pollution on climate and ecosystems.