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Apr 302013

From Green Right Now Reports

The American Lung Association’s State of the Air report had some sobering news for many big metro areas last week. Not only do the central cities suffer from poor air quality, but the problem often encompasses the suburbs too, as ozone and State of the Airparticle pollution spreads over U.S. megalopolises.

Typically, the worst-rated cities (the worst of the worst are listed below) have unacceptably high levels of ozone (smog) created by tailpipe pollution and industrial emissions. “Particle pollution” from coal-fired power plants, diesel fuels and wood-burning stoves also raised air pollution to levels considered unhealthy in many big cities.

Both types of pollution, ozone and particle, aggravate asthma, contribute to lung cancer and worsen respiratory and heart conditions, according to the ALA.

Where’s the good news? In Springfield, Peoria, Sioux Falls, Lincoln, Duluth, Grand Junction, Tuscaloosa, Bangor, Fort Collins, Flagstaff, Laredo and a few dozen more mid-sized cities that the ALA rated as having the best air quality. Those cities rated best on at least one of the three indexes tracked by the ALA.  (See more about the Cleanest Cities.)

Four metro regions — Bismarck, ND; Cape Coral-Fort Myers, FL; Palm Bay-Melbourne-Titusville, FL; and Rapid City, SD, rated well on all three indexes (ozone, short-term particle pollution and year-round particle pollution). These cities suffered no “unhealthy” days caused by ozone or particle pollution and were among the top 25 cities with the lowest year-round particle levels.

And there was more good news in the 2013 annual report.

“We are happy to report that the state of our air is much cleaner today than when we started the ‘State of the Air’ report 14 years ago,” said Harold Wimmer, National President and CEO of the American Lung Association in a statement. “Even in parts of the country that experienced increases in unhealthy days of high ozone and short-term particle pollution, they still have better air quality compared to a decade ago.”

The challenge, however, comes in trying to improve air quality in those cities that still don’t meet safe ozone and particle pollution levels set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

By the American Lung Association’s calculations, nearly 132 million people live in counties with dangerous levels of either ozone or particle pollution, which can cause “wheezing and coughing, asthma attacks, heart attacks, and premature death.”

The situation is particularly hard on those with undeveloped or impaired respiratory systems, such as infants, children, seniors, asthmatics, people with heart disease or diabetes and people who work or exercise outdoors.

To continue to improve air quality, the ALA recommends that the U.S. :

*Clean up car emissions by making sure the EPA issues stricter guidelines by the end of 2013. (These new rules are known as Tier 3 Gasoline and Vehicle Standards.

* Clean up coal-fired plants, which are the single largest producer of greenhouse gasses, and also emit mercury, benzene, dioxins, arsenic and lead, which can cause cancer and cardiovascular disease, and damage the kidneys, lungs and nervous system.  Again, the EPA needs to follow-up with tighter guidelines for new and existing coal-fired power plants.

*Strengthen ozone standards to better protect public health, something that the Obama and predecessor administrations have failed to do.

The report did not discuss greener sources of energy, such as solar, wind and geothermal , which environmentalists tout as a way to clear the air by reducing the number of coal-burning power plants.

Top 10 U.S. Cities Most Polluted by Short-term Particle Pollution (24-hour PM 2.5)

Metropolitan Statistical Areas

  1. Bakersfield-Delano, Calif.
  2. Fresno-Madera, Calif.
  3. Hanford-Corcoran, Calif.
  4. Los Angeles-Long Beach-Riverside, Calif.
  5. Modesto, Calif.
  6. Salt Lake City-Ogden-Clearfield, Utah
  7. Pittsburgh-New Castle, Pa.
  8. Merced, Calif.
  9. Fairbanks, Alaska
  10. Logan, Utah-Idaho

Top 10 U.S. Cities Most Polluted by Year-Round Particle Pollution (Annual PM 2.5)

Metropolitan Statistical Areas

1. Bakersfield-Delano, Calif.
1.  Merced, Calif.
3.  Fresno-Madera, Calif.
4.  Hanford-Corcoran, Calif.
4.  Los Angeles-Long Beach-Riverside, Calif.
6.  Modesto, Calif.
7.  Visalia-Porterville, Calif.
8.  Pittsburgh-New Castle, Pa.
9.  El Centro, Calif.
10.  Cincinnati-Middletown-Wilmington, Ohio-Ky.-Ind.

Top 10 Most Ozone-Polluted Cities

Metropolitan Statistical Areas

  1. Los Angeles-Long Beach-Riverside, Calif.
  2. Visalia-Porterville, Calif.
  3. Bakersfield-Delano, Calif.
  4. Fresno-Madera, Calif.
  5. Hanford-Corcoran, Calif.
  6. Sacramento-Arden-Arcade-Yuba City, Calif.-Nev.
  7. Houston-Baytown-Huntsville, Texas
  8. Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas
  9. Washington-Baltimore-Northern Virginia, District of Columbia-Md.-Va.-W.Va.
  10. El Centro, Calif.

Jul 232012

From Green Right Now

Stricter smog standards recommended by the EPA last year could have saved more than 6,000 lives annually, according to a study by Johns Hopkins University public health researchers.

LA, notorious for its smog issues, has improved. Dallas, Houston, New York City, not so much.

Their analysis found that the new standard for ozone pollution — limiting it to 70 parts per billion instead of the current 75 ppb — would have avoided 2,450 to 4,130 deaths from heart attacks and respiratory diseases each year.

That would have been about two-thirds more lives saved than those credited to the existing standard, estimated to save 1,410 to 2,480 lives, according to the study, published July 18 in Environmental Health Perspectives. 

An even more stringent limit of 60 ppb, could save even more lives, up to 7,990 every year,  according to the study.

In addition, a stricter standard would help Americans avoid millions of lost work and school days by those suffering from asthma and other respiratory ailments aggravated by pollution.

Smog includes particulate pollution from smokestacks as well as the ground-level ozone formed when nitrous and carbon dioxide gases from car and industrial emissions combine with sunlight. It damages human health by affecting the respiratory and circulatory systems, worsening asthma and other conditions.

An EPA panel had recommended a tighter standard for smog, to improve public health, particularly in congested urban areas.

But the Obama Administration deemed the proposed new rule too costly to implement during a recession.

According to a brief on the study, the Johns Hopkins researchers found that tougher standards for ozone, the main lung-irritating ingredient in smog, “would result in dramatic public health benefits,” particularly in large cities.

Several urban areas have been identified by the EPA as having smog that exceeds even the existing standard. You can see these “non-attainment” areas on the map below.







Dec 212011

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Public health advocates and environmentalists praised the Obama Administration for adopting standards for air pollution to reduce mercury and other toxics released from power plants.

The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards for Power Plants, announced today by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “are long overdue” and will help reduce the amounts of mercury, lead, arsenic and other pollutants that affect human health, American Lung Association leaders said.

“Since toxic air pollution from power plants can make people sick and cut lives short, the new Mercury and Air Toxics Standards are a huge victory for public health,” said Albert A. Rizzo, MD, National Volunteer Chair of the American Lung Association, and pulmonary and critical care physician in Newark, Delaware. “The Lung Association expects all oil and coal-fired power plants to act now to protect all Americans, especially our children, from the health risks imposed by these dangerous air pollutants.”

Mercury from coal plants accounts for about half of the mercury emissions released into the atmosphere. It harms people by polluting the air and it settles into lakes and oceans, contributing to the contamination of fish, many of which are considered dangerous to consume because of they accumulate mercury in their flesh.

Mercury, arsenic, lead and dioxin from air pollution have been linked to a long list of health issues. Mercury and lead have been shown to affect the cognitive development of children and the development of fetuses. The other heavy metals and dioxin have been linked to cancer, cardiovascular disease and nervous system disruptions as well.

By the EPA’s calculus, the new standard will prevent 130,000 childhood asthma attacks and 11,000 premature deaths each year.

Despite the public health benefit, the coal industry has fought the standards, which will require them to clean up their emissions, but gives them three to four years to do so.

Only about 40 percent of the nation’s 600 power plants will be seriously affected by the new rules, because newer coal plants already have reduced, in whole or in part, the targeted emissions by using improved technology, according to the EPA. The newer coal plants meet or nearly meet the new standards because these rules have been on the drawing board for years, since Congress ordered them under the 1990 Clean Air Act.

Both sides of this decades-long debate agree that the new rules could force some aging plants, spread across the country in 40 states, to close because it would be too expensive to retrofit them. Other plants are expected to upgrade.

The coal industry opposed the standards, saying they will increase the cost of business, the price of electricity and could lead to electricity shortages.

American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity President and CEO Steve Miller  said today that “the EPA is out of touch with the hard reality facing American families and businesses” and fails to appreciate that the rule will “destroy jobs, raise the cost of energy and could even make electricity less reliable.”

Miller said that if after studying the new rule it is “as bad” as what the EPA proposed earlier, the coal industry will ask Congress to step in.

But outside of the fossil fuel industry, several business groups welcomed the higher standards. 

“Our experience has shown that the Clean Air Act yields substantial benefits to the economy and to businesses, and that these benefits consistently outweigh the costs of pollution reductions. We believe the finalization of MATS [Mercury and Air Toxics Standards] is a meaningful step towards economic recovery and growth,” said business leaders in a joint statement from the American Businesses for Clean Energy, American Sustainable Business Council, Ceres, Environmental Entrepreneurs, Main Street Alliance and the Small Business Majority.

Environmentalists say that new energy production, such as green solar and wind energy, could help replace lost capacity from coal plants that cannot be sufficiently updated, many of which are 40 or more years old anyway.

Those favoring the new pollution controls also note that along with newer coal plants, many other types of industry have successfully reduced their toxic emissions, suggesting that the coal industry can find a way where it’s feasible.

“Every other major industrial sector in America is already reducing mercury and other air toxins. Oil refineries, chemical plants, plastics companies, the iron and steel industries, heavy manufacturers—they’ve all been subject to air toxic standards for more than 10 years,” reports Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in a blog  about today’s EPA ruling.


Copyright © 2011 Green Right Now | Distributed by GRN Network

Jun 012011

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Pollution from natural gas drilling is a key factor in North Texas’ continuing smog pollution problems, but the skies could be much cleaner if natural gas drilling companies would take a few simple steps, according to a citizens’ clean air group.

VOCs can be seen escaping this natural gas installation in North Texas through infrared photography. (Photo: TCEQ)

The 9-county area around Dallas and Fort Worth has struggled to meet the EPA’s clean air standards set for the region, despite warnings to improve air quality dating to the early 1990s. Now, even though pollution from cars and trucks has been reduced through better tailpipe technology, the region still fails to meet basic clean air benchmarks. The reason, clean air advocates say, is the natural gas industry.

Hundreds of drilling operations in the region release tons of methane gas, a greenhouse gas 21 times as potent as carbon dioxide, as well as Volatile Organic Compounds, like benzene and formaldehyde, every day.

Yet the solution to this noxious problem is right under the operators’ noses, according to the Downwinders at Risk citizens group.

If these drilling operations would simply use the state-of-the art valves, vapor recovery and pneumatic devices available to them to curb emissions they’d not only capture the VOC pollutants that contribute to the area’s ongoing smog and ozone pollution, they’d save millions of dollars in escaped product, said Jim Schermbeck, director of the Downwinders.

“Everybody seems to agree that it’s really cheap to do and that once you get it done, it starts to pay you back really, really quickly,” Schermbeck said.

These are the conclusions of an academic report, “Leaking Money,” by environmental engineer Dr. Melanie Sattler that was commissioned by the Downwinders at Risk Education Fund.

The report, released last week, found that natural gas drillers operating in North Texas could recover vast quantities of natural gas from valve leaks and other sources of leakage – all of which could be sold either as natural gas, as chemical feedstock or as base material for gasoline. Furthermore, the recapture could be done with existing technology.

Reducing VOC emissions with these various techniques, reports Dr. Sattler, would be “win-win: increased revenues for the natural gas industry, and lower ozone-forming volatile organic compound (VOC) emission for the citizens of North Central Texas.”

Sattler calculated that natural gas companies operating in North Texas could earn up to $51.9 million a year in new revenues by recapturing VOCs and methane that’s currently leaking from natural gas wells and storage tanks. SHe based her figures on a current intermediate price for commercial natural gas.

Pneumatic devices installed on tanks, pipelines, condensing equipment and all throughout the natural gas process would account for more than half of the savings, up to $35 million in the 9-county region that the EPA has designated as “non-attainment” for ozone or ground-level smog pollution, according to the report.

The devices would keep 71 tons of VOC emissions from escaping each year; VOCs that contribute to smog and exacerbate asthma and other respiratory illnesses among people living in the DFW area.

Retrofitting current operations for these pneumatic devices would not represent a burdensome cost, according to “Leaking Money.” The report estimated that most retrofit installations would pay for themselves in six months to a year.

In addition, the report noted that many companies already use such devices. Schermbeck said that some companies like Devon Energy are known for operating in more environmentally responsible ways, by installing such recapture and anti-leak devices from the beginning.

“This technology has been out for quite awhile, it just hasn’t been mandated,” Schermbeck said.

Downwinders would like the state of Texas to require more of natural gas drillers. The group hopes to get public support for its “Fair Share” campaign, which asks drillers to do their fair share for clean air, by publicizing Sattler’s results and pushing for the state to enact stricter rules for drillers. Changes at the state level are needed to support cities and counties trying to keep air pollution in check both for residents and for other businesses that want to operate in a clean environment.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has set stronger standards for Nitrous Oxide emissions, but not for VOCs.

Yet the state agency’s own projections show that the natural gas and oil industries together are emitting nearly 100 tons of VOC air pollution every day in North Texas. By 2012, TCEQ estimates that the two industries will be spewing 103 tons of VOC pollution each day from condensate (storage) tanks and through valves at various points in the production and collection system.

Pressure to do more could come from a report on pollution from natural gas drilling commissioned by the city of Fort Worth. Due out at the end of June, it’s expected to help illuminate the problem of air pollution from drilling operations, Schermbeck said.

The Barnett Shale drilling region, which cuts through Fort Worth, and includes counties south, west and north of the city, has been a hot spot for hydraulic “fracking” along with other areas of the country with shale gas deposits, such as the Marcellus Shale region that stretches across much of Appalachia into central New York state.

Citizen groups in several cities affected by the encroachment of natural gas drilling into urban areas have scrambled to mitigate the environmental damage. But without stronger regulation or mandates from TCEQ – which Schermbeck says is stacked with industry representatives – residents in Texas have too little power at the local level to curb air pollution from drillers.

The health risks from smog and ground-level ozone are well documented. The American Lung Association cataloged many of these effects in a recent article urging strong federal guidelines for ozone:

  • “A strong ozone pollution standard will prevent life-threatening health effects. Ozone burns lungs and airways, causing them to become inflamed, reddened, and swollen. Children and teens, senior citizens, and people with lung diseases like asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and others are particularly vulnerable to the health effects of ozone. When inhaled even at low levels, ozone can cause chest pain and coughing, aggravate asthma, reduce lung function, increase emergency room visits and hospital admissions for respiratory problems, and lead to irreversible lung damage. Ozone can even cause premature death.”

Schermbeck said there are many anecdoctal stories of people moving to North Texas, near a gas well operation, who have experienced respiratory ailments, watery eyes and lethargy that hadn’t bothered them where they previously lived.

Copyright © 2011 Green Right Now | Distributed by GRN Network

Jul 072009

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

You know those smoggy, hazy days when you look toward downtown to find the skyscrapers obscured behind a  ripply, gray veil? What horrible pollution, you think. And it may be.

But watch out, those other days when the skyscrapers blaze brightly under clear blue skies may be deceptively hazardous to your health as well, or maybe more so.

An article just out in Science News, somewhat confusingly entitled “Bad Breath” (we get it, we just have to think about it) looks at how finer particle air pollution can seep deep into our lungs and into our blood, causing harm without us “seeing” that we’re in any danger.

The gist, according to the article by Janet Raloff:

“Even on a clear, sunny day, many tens of thousands — and potentially millions — of tiny particles cloud every breath you take. Some are nearly pure carbon. But reactive metals, acids, oily hydrocarbons and other organic chemicals jacket most of these motes.”

Ok, we’ll get back to what a “mote” is in a moment. But here’s the scary part, these micro particles of “particulate matter” — identified as particles that are 2.5 micrometers in diameter or smaller — may cause  premature aging and make us more susceptible not just to respiratory illnesses, but other health conditions as well. Even when they’re at levels currently deemed safe by government standards, they are able to do damage. In fact, their very microsopic nature is why they’re so insidious.

And now for the very bad news: A lot of these tiny particles and their nano cousins, known as “ultra-fine” particles apparently come from car and truck exhaust. The EPA and others have been exploring the problem of PMs for years, but it seems the science is now homing in on exactly why and how traffic fumes hurt us, and beginning to look at those ultra fine particles that have been less studied and are, even now, difficult to track.

Our government, too, is taking more of an interest in assessing the impact of traffic on our health. Recently, the EPA announced it would look at the air outside several elementary schools that were identified in a USA Today investigation as being located in high pollution sites, mainly near factories or freeways.

This week, the Centers for Disease Control launched a website called the National Environmental Public Health Tracking Network that allows people to look at data on air pollution, and other environmental factors, in their area. You can, for instance, find the counties in your state where PM 2.5 pollution exceeded EPA standards during a selected year. And there’s information about how traffic pollution may worsen heart disease, already America’s number one killer, claiming nearly 1 million lives annually.

Meanwhile, the Science News article lists other studies looking at this emerging area of inquiry of how small particulate pollution particles alter our body’s ability to stay healthy. The studies have found that direct exposure doesn’t just aggravate lung conditions, it exacerbates inflammation throughout the human body, worsening heart and a host of other conditions.

A German study in 2007 that measured coronary artery calcification among nearly 4,500 middle-aged to elderly men and women found traffic pollution was a main culprit, according to the Science News article: “After controlling for other risk factors, that study showed that the closer people lived to a major road, the worse their atherosclerosis.”

Other studies, such as one completed in the US that released findings in March in the journal, Epidemiology, have found a similar, though not as strong, correlation between traffic exposure and arteriosclerosis.

The Science News article goes on to round up the latest research on the 2.5 micron PMs, chronicling how they worsen the situation for diabetics, cause kids more asthma attacks (you probably suspected that) and can lead to shortening of the telomeres on the ends of chromosomes, at least according to one study of traffic crossing guards. (When chromosomes have shorter end caps or telomeres, they can become less effective at replicating, which alters body chemistry in a way that weakens the immune system. Shorter telomeres, in other words, can age a person biologically.)

Some of this is new and much of it is intuitive, still it adds to the growing mound of  evidence that living near expressways or even busy surface streets can be unhealthy — something that lately appears to be getting  more research attention.

(Motes, btw, are small or tiny particles, per Websters. The term also is used to define “smart dust” — a science fictiony sort of particle that’s actually real, operates like a sensor and would take another article to explain.)

Copyright © 2009 Green Right Now | Distributed by Noofangle Media

Feb 172009

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

The Earth Day Network, the Clean Air Campaign and UPS have launched a campaign that challenges an American tradition – idling your car outside the neighborhood school while waiting to scoop up the munchkins.

The groups are targeting active idlers because the practice needlessly pollutes the air, contributing to global warming and aggravating kids’ respiratory health issues.

UPS is funding the effort with a $350,000 grant that helps supply students, teachers, parents and community leaders with “toolkits” and educational material for bus drivers and parents. Schools can get signs for car pool lanes, educational material for children and curriculum guides for teachers at the EDN website.

“Turning off your engine while waiting to pick up your child is such a simple step to help everyone breathe cleaner air, save money on gas and reduce emissions all at the same time,” said Kathleen Rogers, president of Earth Day Network, in a news release announcing the program today.

“Vehicle idling wastes fuel and money. In fact, idling for 30 seconds uses more fuel than restarting your engine, and idling for 10 minutes a day wastes an average of 24.6 gallons of gas per year.” (Tell that to our crossing guard and her idling truck!)

It almost goes without saying, but kids are more affected by this ambient air pollution than anyone, because their lungs are still developing.

“In fact, particle pollution and ground level ozone and can aggravate asthma and contribute to increased upper-respiratory infections,” says Kevin Green, executive director of The Clean Air Campaign.

For Atlanta-based UPS, the national program is an expansion of a previous partnership with the Clean Air Campaign in Georgia. The Clean Air Campaign is a Georgia non-profit that works with employers to help find commuting solutions, reduce highway congestion and improve air quality.

Earth Day Network is the clearinghouse for Earth Day, with thousands of partner organizations in 174 countries.

Copyright © 2009 Green Right Now | Distributed by Noofangle Media

Aug 262008

By Diane Porter

There are already undeniable legacies of the 2008 Olympic Games: eight gold medals hanging around U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps’ neck, for instance, or the otherworldly sprint that helped Jamaican runner Usain Bolt break Michael Johnson’s record in the men’s 100 meter race. There are visual reminders, as well; the Olympic pavilions, Bird’s Nest and Water Cube will remain a part of central Beijing life for decades.

Perhaps the most crucial legacy, however, is yet to be played out. As hotels empty, athletes and television crews return to their home countries, and Beijing goes back to a life more sheltered from the world, the lingering question is this: Will the enormous and by most accounts successful efforts to reduce the city’s pollution during the Olympic games continue in some fashion, improving life for those who live there and reducing the city’s footprint on the global environment?

“Beijing will be built into a livable city,” said Du Shaozhong, deputy head of the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau in a press conference the day before closing ceremonies.

“We will take some new measures to ensure that air quality will reach a new level after the Olympic Games,” he said. “Whether it is automobile emissions reduction, or construction site dust reduction or coal pollution reduction, I believe that the requirements will be more stringent.” Continue reading »