V. Faye McNeill, Beijing, China, December 21, 2016
Much of China, including the capital city, Beijing, is experiencing sustained heavy smog this week, with air pollution at hazardous levels for the past three days. Concentrations of fine particulate matter in Beijing’s air today exceeded 400 ug/m3, more than ten times China’s National Ambient Air Quality Standard (35 ug/m3). The episode has caused an increase in hospitalizations and disruptions in air traffic due to poor visibility. The government has declared a “red alert” and taken emergency measures including industrial shutdowns, odd-even traffic restrictions, and school cancellations to protect public health.
“I love Beijing. I grew up here and spent my whole life here. If it weren’t for the air pollution, I would love living here. But now I think about leaving. Many people are leaving.”
Air quality is an ongoing issue in Beijing, and a major subject of concern for its residents. As one Beijing native told me: “I love Beijing. I grew up here and spent my whole life here. If it weren’t for the air pollution, I would love living here. But now I think about leaving. Many people are leaving.” According to the U.S. Embassy, between 2008-2015, the daily average air quality index in Beijing fell in the “Unhealthy,” “Very Unhealthy,” or “Hazardous” categories 67% of the time. A severe air quality episode in January 2013 was somewhat of a turning point, leading to increased pressure on the government to tighten regulations. One outcome was the amendment of the national ambient air quality standards. Meeting the new standards for PM2.5 would be a major step towards protecting public health. But, as episodes like this one show, improvement is slow to come. Plans for local implementation and enforcement of the new air quality standards are still in the development stages. In some cases major changes in infrastructure are needed in order to reduce emissions, and this can take time. Local efforts alone won’t be enough: The city of Beijing has made bold moves towards eliminating coal burning within the city, but much of Beijing’s pollution comes from upwind sources, outside the city limits.
With the will of government and the people aligned, China is poised to turn around its air pollution problem. Unlike the U.S., which greatly improved its air quality in the last century and now must tackle climate, China is in a position to develop smart new policies and technology to improve air quality and reduce carbon emissions simultaneously.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a new report this week on the Future of Atmospheric Chemistry Research. The report was prepared by an expert panel of atmospheric chemists which convened several times throughout the past year and solicited input from the broader research community. The report presents a retrospective of the successes of atmospheric chemistry research to date, and a vision for coming decades. Priority areas include: developing tools such as new laboratory and analytical instrumentation to accomplish scientific goals, creating data archiving systems, and improving opportunities for interdisciplinary work.
To most scientists including us at the AIRE team, it is obvious that contrails have a simple physical explanation and are not evidence of secret chemical spraying. In fact, it is so obvious that it would never have occurred to most of us to spend the time and energy to conduct and publish a survey on the topic. But until now, a nonexpert wanting to find out the truth about this by searching on the internet would encounter tons of sites filled with misinformation and conspiracy theories, and very little legitimate scientific information. Hopefully this article (and press covering it, like this NY Times article) will be near the top of the Google search results for a while.
It’s hot as the Dickens and it’s an air quality action day in the New York city area and in much of the Northeast. Skies are currently blue but the air quality index is in the ‘Unsafe for Sensitive Groups’ range. This plus the super hot weather makes for dangerous conditions for asthmatics, the elderly, and other sensitive groups. So do your best to chill out indoors this weekend!
Happy 4th of July from the AIRE team! As we head into the holiday weekend, we have received some questions about fireworks and their effect on air quality. Here is an excerpt from our 2015 post on the topic. Have a happy and healthy holiday!
While they are beautiful and festive, fireworks often have a major negative impact on air quality. Concentrations of fine particulate matter skyrocket during and after holidays such as New Year’s, Diwali, or the 4th of July in the US where fireworks displays are prevalent. The particles generated often contain elevated levels of toxic chemical components such as metals (the same ingredients that give the fireworks their impressive colors).
Fireworks are not a regulated source of air pollution since they only impact air quality a few nights a year in most places. However, sensitive populations including asthmatics may want to think twice about breathing the smoke created on those festive nights (or at least carry your inhaler when heading out to watch the fireworks this weekend!).
According to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, air quality in NYC is getting better. Here at AIRE, we hypothesized the opposite last summer. Based on a very unscientific survey of our own asthma responses and perceptions of visibility in the city, we suspected that summertime air quality had been on the decline in recent years (2014-2015). To test this hypothesis, summer undergraduate researcher Silvia Vina Lopez gathered Air Quality Index (AQI) data for NYC from 2000-2015, and data on criteria pollutant (SO2, CO, NO2, O3, PM) concentrations from 9 NYSDEC monitoring sites around the five boroughs. Here are some highlights of her findings:
Overall, air quality has been improving since 2000. Importantly, there has clearly been a steady decrease in the number of “bad air days”. Since 2000, the number of days categorized as “Unhealthy for sensitive groups,” “Unhealthy,” or “Very unhealthy” has been on the decline.
Since 2008, the number of “Good” air quality days has had an overall upward trend, but there indeed has been a sharp decrease in “Good” days since 2013. Since “Moderate” air quality is also pretty good in the big scheme of things, this trend may be subtle to perceive as you’re walking the streets of NYC unless you have asthma (like us) or think about PM 2.5 a lot (also like us).
To dig deeper into these trends, Silvia investigated the frequency with which each criteria pollutant exceeded the 24 h NAAQS standards. She found that SO2 violations decreased between 2004-2009 and have stayed low. The City attributes this trend to changes in heating oil regulations. On the other hand, the frequency of PM2.5 violations increased over the same time period and has remained elevated since 2009. This value decreased somewhat between 2007-2015, consistent with the data presented in the City’s survey, which covered 2008-2014. However, the average number of PM2.5 violations 2009-2015 was still significantly higher than 2000-2005.
The verdict: air quality in NYC is not bad and getting better in general. However, work needs to be done to reduce PM2.5 violations, and hold on to the gains made between 2008-2014. One possible source of elevated PM2.5 not mentioned in the City’s report is secondary organic aerosol formation: the formation of PM2.5 in situ, due to gas-phase reactions of oxidants and volatile organic compounds (which can be natural or man-made).
La primavera ha llegado, trayendo el polen. Al igual que la materia particulada, el polen se mueve a través del aire, pero sus partículas son más grandes. Por eso, podemos verlas a simple vista. Cada primavera, mucha gente sufren por las allergias estacionales, a causa del polen. La contaminación del aire puede empeorar los efectos allergenicos del polen, pero las razones no están claras. Es posible que los contaminantes modifican las proteínas del polen a aumentar la respuesta alérgica, o tal vez es otro efecto sinérgico, como la sensibilidad química múltiple. Esta es un área activa de investigación en la interfase de la contaminación del aire y la salud.
The Nexus Blog is an informative and interesting resource for news and information on green chemistry and sustainability, maintained by the Green Chemistry Institute of the American Chemical Society. Features include the weekly Green Chemistry News Roundup, policy updates, and profiles of chemists, chemical engineers, and policy makers. Follow the Nexus Blog on twitter @ACSCGI for posts and additional content.
Moms Clean Air Force is an organization of families fighting against environmental pollution. Their website is full of excellent resources, with information on such topics as indoor air pollution, fracking, smog, and more. Our favorite feature is the “mom detective.” They have a very active and interesting twitter feed at @CleanAirMoms. Moms Clean Air Force is sponsored by the Environmental Defense Fund.