Relatively small increases in air pollution were associated with a significant increase in treated psychiatric problems, the research showed.
by Damian Carrington
A major new study has linked air pollution to increased mental illness in children, even at low levels of pollution.
The new research found that relatively small increases in air pollution were associated with a significant increase in treated psychiatric problems. It is the first study to establish the link but is consistent with a growing body of evidence that air pollution can affect mental and cognitive health and that children are particularly vulnerable to poor air quality.
The research, published in the peer-reviewed journal BMJ Open, examined the pollution exposure of more than 500,000 under-18s in Sweden and compared this with records of medicines prescribed for mental illnesses, ranging from sedatives to anti-psychotics.
“The results can mean that a lower concentration of air pollution, first and foremost from traffic, may reduce psychiatric disorders in children and adolescents,” said Anna Oudin, at Umeå University, who led the study. “I would be worried myself if I lived in an area with high air pollution.”
Prof Frank Kelly, at King’s College London, said the research was important. “This builds on existing evidence that children are particularly sensitive to poor air quality probably because their lifestyles increase the dose of air pollution they are exposed too – ie they are more active – and that developing organs may be more vulnerable until they fully mature.”
Air pollution in the UK is above legal limits in many cities and estimated to cause 40,000 early deaths a year, though this only includes illnesses such as lung disease, heart attacks and strokes.
The EU and WHO limit for nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is 40mcg/m3 (micrograms per cubic metre), but levels can reach many times that in polluted cities like London. The researchers found that a 10mcg/m3 increase in NO2 corresponded to a 9% increase in mental illness in the children. For the same increase in tiny particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10), the increase was 4%.
One striking aspect of the new research is that Sweden has low levels of air pollution, but the researchers still saw the link even below levels of 15mcg/m3. “Sweden is not a country that suffers from very bad air quality, said Kelly. “This suggests that other countries and cities have an even bigger challenge, as they will have to make significant improvements to their air quality so that it is even cleaner than Sweden’s.”
It is not possible to say from this study what would happen to rates of mental illness at higher levels of air pollution, but Oudin said they could rise: “In all the air pollution studies I have been involved in, the effects seem to be linear.”
This type of research cannot prove a causal link between the air pollution and increases in mental illness, but there is a plausible mechanism. “We know air pollution can get into bodies and brains and cause inflammation,” said Oudin. Animal studies indicate that inflammation is associated with a range of psychiatric disorders.
There have also been several earlier studies that found associations between air pollution and autism spectrum disorders and learning and development in children. “This study adds to evidence that air pollution may have detrimental effects on the brains of children and adolescents,” the Swedish researchers said.
In May, the Guardian revealed an unpublished air pollution report that demonstrated that 433 schools in London are located in areas that exceed EU limits for NO2 pollution and that four-fifths of those are in deprived areas. In May, a WHO report concluded that air pollution was rising at an “alarming rate” in the world’s cities, while a report in September found 3 million people a year suffer early deaths around the world from air pollution.
The new Swedish paper concludes: “The severe impact of child and adolescent mental health problems on society, together with the plausible and preventable association of exposure to air pollution, deserves special attention.”
What’s 23 feet tall, eats smog, and makes jewelry for fun?
In Rotterdam this week, the designer Daan Roosegaarde is showing off the result of three years of research and development: The largest air purifier ever built. It’s a tower that scrubs the pollution from more than 30,000 cubic meters of air per hour—and then condenses those fine particles of smog into tiny “gem stones” that can be embedded in rings, cufflinks, and more.
Each stone is roughly equivalent to cleaning 1,000 cubic meters of air—so you’re literally wearing the pollution that once hung in the air around Roosegaarde’s so-called Smog Free Tower. In the designer’s words, buying a ring means “you donate a thousand cubic meters of clean air to the city where the Smog Free Tower is.”
The process taking place inside its walls is powered by 1,400 watts of sustainable energy, which is comparable to a water boiler, and the studio says it hopes to one day integrate solar PVs into the design to power the process—which works not so differently than some ionic air purifiers. Roosegaarde explains:
By charging the Smog Free Tower with a small positive current, an electrode will send positive ions into the air. These ions will attach themselves to fine dust particles. A negatively charged surface -the counter electrode- will then draw the positive ions in, together with the fine dust particles. The fine dust that would normally harm us, is collected together with the ions and stored inside of the tower. This technology manages to capture ultra-fine smog particles which regular filter systems fail to do.
Levels of the harmful air pollutant nitrogen dioxide at a city-center monitoring station are the highest in Europe. Concentrations are greater even than in Beijing, where expatriates have dubbed the city’s smog the “airpocalypse.”
It’s the law of unintended consequences at work. European Union efforts to fight climate change favored diesel fuel over gasoline because it emits less carbon dioxide, or CO2. However, diesel’s contaminants have swamped benefits from measures that include a toll drivers pay to enter central London, a thriving bike-hire program and growing public-transport network.
“Successive governments knew more than 10 years ago that diesel was producing all these harmful pollutants, but they myopically plowed on with their CO2 agenda,” said Simon Birkett, founder of Clean Air in London, a nonprofit group. “It’s been a catastrophe for air pollution, and that’s not too strong a word. It’s a public-health catastrophe.”
Tiny particles called PM2.5s probably killed 3,389 people in London in 2010, the government agency Public Health England said in April. Like nitrogen dioxide, or NO2, they come from diesel combustion. Because the pollutants are found together, it’s hard to identify deaths attributable only to NO2, said Jeremy Langrish, a clinical lecturer in cardiology at the University of Edinburgh.
“Exposure to air pollution is associated with increases in deaths from cardiovascular disease such as heart attacks and strokes,” Langrish said. “It’s associated with respiratory problems like asthma.”
The World Health Organization says NO2 can inflame the airways and worsen bronchitis in children.
London isn’t alone in having bad air in Europe, where 301 sites breached the EU’s NO2 limits in 2012, including seven in the British capital. Paris, Rome, Athens, Madrid, Brussels and Berlin also had places that exceeded the ceiling. The second and third-worst sites among 1,513 monitoring stations were both in Stuttgart after London’s Marylebone Road.
“Nitrogen dioxide is a problem that you get in all big cities with a lot of traffic,” said Alberto Gonzalez Ortiz, project manager for air quality at the European Environment Agency, which is based in Copenhagen. “In many cases it’s gotten worse because of the new fleets of diesel cars.”
The EU limits NO2 to a maximum of 40 micrograms per cubic meter of air. The concentration on Marylebone Road, a stone’s throw from Regent’s Park, was almost 94 micrograms in 2012, according to the most recent data from the EEA.
The level for the site last year was 81 micrograms, and it’s averaging 83 micrograms this year, according to King’s College London. In 1998, when the King’s College data begins, it was 92. That’s about the time the switch to diesel started.
In contrast, Beijing had a concentration of 56 micrograms last year, according to China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection. The Chinese capital has a worse problem with other pollutants, registering almost triple the level of PM10 particles (bigger than PM2.5s) as on Marylebone Road.
London’s air has improved since the “pea-souper” fogs in the 1800s and 1900s. In 1952, the so-called Great Smog killed 4,000 people. East Londoners couldn’t see their feet through a choking blanket of smoke caused when cold air trapped industrial emissions and coal fumes. That led to passage of a clean-air law in 1956, seven years before the U.S. Clean Air Act.
Air pollution and particulates are “invisible and there isn’t the same pressure on politicians” as in the 1950s, said Joan Walley, an opposition Labour Party lawmaker who leads the Parliament’s cross-party Environmental Audit Committee. “It requires a long-term strategy.”
Walley’s committee began an inquiry on May 2 to assess government efforts to improve air quality, calling for written submissions by June 5.
While the government blamed an April spike in pollution on dust from the Sahara alongside domestic emissions and particles from continental Europe, the prevailing winds mean London typically exports its own problem.
“It’s not rocket science to figure out that we contribute mostly on westerly winds to our neighbors,” said Martin Williams, professor of air quality at Kings College.
Europe-wide policy triggered the problem. The “dieselisation” of London’s cars began with an agreement between car manufacturers and the EU in 1998 that aimed to lower the average CO2 emissions of new vehicles. Because of diesel’s greater fuel economy, it increased in favor.
The European Commission, the EU regulatory arm, “is and always has been technologically neutral,” said Joe Hennon, a spokesman. “It does not favor diesel over petrol-powered cars. How to achieve CO2 reductions is up to member states.”
EU rules enforced since 2000 allowed diesel cars to spew more than three times the amount of oxides of nitrogen including NO2 as those using gasoline. New rules that took effect in September narrow that gap.
“The challenge is much greater that we had thought just a few years ago,” said Matthew Pencharz, environment and energy adviser to London Mayor Boris Johnson. “A lot of that is due to a well-meant EU policy that failed. We’re stuck now with these diesel cars — about half our cars are diesel, whereas 10, 15 years ago, it was lower than 10 percent.”
The U.K. Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in 2011 estimated it would take London until 2025 to comply with the 2010 rules. The government didn’t ask for an extension to comply because doing so comes with a requirement to show it was possible by 2015.
For Green Party Leader Natalie Bennett, the solution is simple: Get people out of their cars.
“Fifty-six percent of journeys we make in Britain are less than 5 miles,” Bennett said in an interview. “If you turn a significant percentage of those into walking and cycling journeys, then you’ve made huge progress.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Alex Morales in London at email@example.com
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Reed Landberg at firstname.lastname@example.org James Hertling
Thanks to Kebmodee for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.
A massive machine — longer than a football field — is munching away beneath Washington like a giant earthworm. Before it’s done, it will devour about 2 million cubic yards of soil that has been sitting under the city since the days of the dinosaurs.
It is the most amazing and expensive construction project that no one ever will see.
It will come within a center fielder’s throw of Nationals Park, within a corner kick of RFK Stadium, nibble at the deepest roots from the National Arboretum, pass below the Love Nightclub and the United House of Prayer for All, go under railroad tracks that carry 1 million-pound trains into Union Station and a six-lane roadway used by 60,000 cars a day, gnaw its way under Home Depot’s doorstep and then chomp more than a mile and a half down Rhode Island Avenue toward Logan Circle.
Like the creature from a sci-fi thriller, the machine will tunnel along — six feet at a time — beneath a city largely oblivious to its existence.
“That’s the way we like it,” said James Wonneberg, DC Water’s resident engineer.
Cars race from Italy to France through a famous tunnel under the Alps. Bullet trains rocket through a tunnel under the English Channel. One day, raw sewage will roar through Washington’s tunnel.
Not so romantic, perhaps, but vital to a city that now pumps 2 billion gallons a year from its sewers and toilets directly into the Potomac, the Anacostia and Rock Creek.
With a little help from upstream neighbors, those three tributaries may one day run closer to pure. But for now, there is only that dream and a hungry machine.
The machine itself is a marvel of technology, an underground factory 443 feet long and almost six times the weight of the Statue of Liberty. It does about a dozen things at once, and it moves.
Consider just one aspect of that movement: More than 100 feet below ground, how does it know where it’s going?
With a circular face three times the width of a Metrobus, what keeps the machine always within a few millimeters of its intended path?
Separating the streams
Washington needs this new, gargantuan 13-mile long, $2.6 billion sewer tunnel because of what might be called, in hindsight, a dumb decision. Were they still alive to defend it, the city’s forefathers might respond much like the people who were wearing bell-bottoms in the 1970s or who dye their hair electric green today: It was the fashion of the day.
The “it,” in this case, was something called a combined sewage system. They were all the rage in 19th-century America. The District has one, as do more than 770 other places where a total of 40 million people live.
That is a lot of flushes, and on a rainy day, that matters.
Here’s why: In a combined sewer system, your bath water, your laundry water and whatever you flush goes into a network of sewers that also handles all the rainwater that flows down sewer grates from the street.
On a dry day, or one with a slow but steady rain, all of that combined wastewater heads obediently to the sewage-treatment plant. In the case of the District, that is the sprawling facility called Blue Plains that sits beside the Potomac River in the southeast quadrant of the city.
But in a gully-washing downpour, a serious thunderstorm or when 10 inches of rapidly melting snow gushes down the sewer grate, the system gets unruly. The path to the treatment plant becomes overwhelmed, and a filthy mix spews from 53 different outlets into the three tributaries.
Not by accident, but by design.
It’s not an occasional thing. It happens hundreds of times a year, contributing 2 billion gallons of untreated waste to Rock Creek, the Potomac and the Anacostia, which gets the worst of it. All that unhealthy mess, of course, flows down into Chesapeake Bay on its way to the Atlantic Ocean.
“By 2032, our stated goal is to have water in the Anacostia that’s swimmable and fishable,” said George Hawkins, DC Water’s general manager.
Having the Potomac turned into an open sewer appealed to no one, and perhaps least of all to Lady Bird Johnson, who is said to have berated Lyndon about it when they flew into National Airport in daylight. That factoid has relevance even today.
Though Lyndon B. Johnson had a war and civil rights on his plate in those days, the rumblings about pollution that began on his watch led his successor, Richard M. Nixon, to create the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.
Fast-forward 35 years. Everybody agreed that something had to be done about combined sewer systems, and the EPA and U.S. Justice Department ordered Washington and several other cities — including New York, Philadelphia and Seattle — to stop dumping combined sewer overflow into rivers.
That gave birth to the District’s tunnel plan, and last year, the massive machine began to dig.
They named it “Lady Bird.”
Lady Bird keeps busy, at once softening the soil in its path, lurching forward to gnaw at it, sliding the stones that will be the tunnel’s wall into place, blasting fresh surface air to the work crew, laying railroad track for the cars that carry the stone, turning the dirt into muck and dumping it on a conveyor belt headed for the tunnel mouth.
The muck will fill 205,820 huge dump trucks before the project is completed in 2025.
Though all of that is going on pretty much at once — 24 hours a day, six days a week — here’s how each facet takes place.
The round face of the machine is 26 feet across and studded with tungsten carbide scraper bits and cutting wheels. Before the device shoulders forward, a barrage of chemical mix shoots from nozzles to loosen up the earth ahead.
Then the machine heaves forward by six feet, its circular face rotating as the bits and wheels slash into the soil. What they dislodge is sucked into the machine, mixed with a compound that turns it to the consistency of toothpaste and is plopped blob by blob onto a conveyor belt that runs along the ceiling to the tunnel end.
While this is underway, massive curved slabs of concrete — they call them “stones” — have arrived on a small rail car that trundles back and forth from the tunnel mouth. They are stacked in the order in which they will be put in place. When they arrive, an electric device that looks like something you might see in an automatic carwash swoops down from above, presses its big rubber gasket against the stone’s face and literally sucks it up.
Stone in hand, the machine then rumbles to the leading edge of the tunnel, where a crew of five in hard hats uses levels and laser guidance to ease each piece into place. The slabs are connected in front and back by big plastic dowels and on top and bottom by arms that are driven into place by a worker with a compressor-fired rivet gun.
Once the precise placement is achieved, the suction machine scoots back to get the next slab until the six-foot, 80,000-pound ring is complete.
But there’s more.
The machine’s boring face is 26 feet across. The interior tunnel walls are 23 feet in diameter. The stones are 14 inches thick. There is, by design, a gap between the new tunnel exterior and the hole that Lady Bird has created.
Into the gap oozes an epoxy-like substance that will harden into a six-inch-thick casing to become the tunnel’s outer defense.
As Lady Bird rides forward through the tunnel on wheels, it lays track in its wake for the rail car that feeds stones to the growing tunnel.
Now it is time for the next push. Eighteen four-ton jacks powered by the 13.8 kilovolts of electricity nudge up against the edges of the tunnel ring that has just been set in place.
Before they fire, the operator who sits in a narrow booth watching six computer monitors studies one that shows crosshairs. Using a target fixed just behind the face of the machine, and a second target behind the machine that provides global coordinates, the operator uses a laser to line up Lady Bird’s next chomp.
“Right now, he’s within an inch of being right on the mark,” said Brett R. Zernich, construction manager, pointing to the crosshairs earlier this month.
At the push of a button, the operator sends Lady Bird surging six feet farther into the soggy soil.
Chewing down the Potomac
Lady Bird said goodbye to daylight several months ago and was lowered into a deep hole on the grounds of the Blue Plains treatment plant. Right now, the machine has chewed its way more than a quarter of a mile and is about 70 feet beneath the floor of the Potomac, skirting around the Naval Research Laboratory because the Navy wasn’t keen on having a tunnel under its testing facility.
In a few months, it will curve to the right, penetrate some rocky soil and pass under Anacostia to connect with a sewage pumping station at Poplar Point. Then it will dip under the river by the same name and make its way to another pumping station near Nationals Park.
A new tunnel will begin at the Poplar Point pumping station, cross under the river just north of the 11th Street Bridge and head toward RFK Stadium. It will pass the arboretum and make a sharp left 120 feet under Rhode Island Avenue.
Just as a river has its tributaries, so does the tunnel, with the largest going up First Street from Rhode Island. And it will have diversion chambers where waste can be stored temporarily so the system isn’t overwhelmed.
All that, for $2.6 billion. Where does the money come from?
Customers. Finding a way to pay to restore other decrepit infrastructure — notably roads and bridges — has become a knotty issue, but water utilities send out monthly bills. Although DC Water services wholesale customers in Maryland and Virginia, most of the burden will fall on their customers in the District.
The average water and sewer bill has gone up by more than 50 percent in recent years, to more than $65 a month for a single-family home.
“Our ratepayers are paying for all this,” Hawkins said. “We estimate [there will be] rate increases for the next 10 years, and maybe for 20, and most of that’s for the tunnel.”
Parts of it will begin opening in 2016, with big sections to follow in 2018 and 2022. With steel filaments embedded in its concrete walls, the tunnel should last for 100 years, they say.
“I want our ratepayers to understand that we have to do this, but it’s more important that they recognize the benefits of it,” Hawkins said. “No one will ever see this tunnel, but they’ll see that the river’s cleaner, and down stream in the Chesapeake, it will be a significant difference.”
This LED screen displays the rising sun in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, which is shrouded in heavy smog on Jan. 16, 2014.
Air pollution in the Chinese capital reached new, choking heights on Thursday. Those who still felt the urge to catch a glimpse of sunlight were able to gather around the city’s gigantic LED screens, where this glorious sunrise was broadcast as part of a patriotic video loop.
Winter is coming, that’s for sure. The northeastern city of Harbin today ushered in the season with smog so thick that visibility was reportedly limited to 10 meters in places. Classes were canceled, roads closed, and planes grounded.
State media said the PM 2.5 reading (which measures the level of harmful particulate matter in the air) “exceeded” 500. A Reuters report put the figure at 1000, or 40 times higher than what the World Health Organization deems safe. Photographs from the city show air so murky it would be easy to mistake Monday morning for deep, dark night.
The shutdown in Harbin is sure to worry residents of northern China as the region heads into what promises to be another long, dirty winter. China’s northeast is plagued year-round by air pollution, the result of factory emissions and massive growth in the number of vehicles on the road. Things get worse, however, when the heaters crank up, increasing the amount of coal that gets burned. Harbin’s current smog comes the day after the city turned on its heaters.
It’s not the first time bad air has brought a Chinese city to a halt. Last year, Beijing was gripped by a weeks-long airpocalypse that sent families scrambling for cover and bolstered sales of face masks and air-purifiers. By choking the nation’s capital in its embrace, that haze helped put pollution on the national agenda, with officials finally recognizing, and promising to address, the problem.
But there’s no easy fix. In September, Beijing unveiled a new blueprint for improving the air by 2017. China will need to spend nearly 5 trillion yuan, or $817 billion to fight pollution, said a spokesman for the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Environmental Protection, with $163 billion of that spent in the capital alone. Last week, as the air turned cold and the pollution spiked, officials announced a set of color-coded emergency measures for bad pollution days. A red alert for toxic air? Sure, that could work. If you can see it through the smog.
Chinese authorities have given courts the powers to hand down the death penalty in serious pollution cases, state media said, as the government tries to assuage growing public anger at environmental desecration.
Chinese authorities have given courts the powers to hand down the death penalty in serious pollution cases, state media said, as the government tries to assuage growing public anger at environmental desecration.
An increasingly affluent urban population has begun to object to China’s policy of growth at all costs, which has fuelled the economy for three decades, with the environment emerging as a focus of concern and protests.
A new judicial interpretation which took effect on Wednesday would impose “harsher punishments” and tighten “lax and superficial” enforcement of the country’s environmental protection laws, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
“In the most serious cases the death penalty could be handed down,” it said.
“With more precise criteria for convictions and sentencing, the judicial explanation provides a powerful legal weapon for law enforcement, which is expected to facilitate the work of judges and tighten punishments for polluters,” Xinhua said, citing a government statement.
“All force should be mobilized to uncover law-breaking clues of environmental pollution in a timely way,” it added.
Previous promises to tackle China’s pollution crisis have had mixed results, and enforcement has been a problem at the local level, where governments often heavily rely on tax receipts from polluting industries under their jurisdiction.
Protests over pollution have unnerved the stability-obsessed ruling Communist Party.
Thousands of people took to the streets in the southwestern city of Kunming last month to protest against the planned production of a chemical at a refinery.
Severe air pollution in Beijing and large parts of northern China this winter have added to the sense of unease among the population.
Human rights groups say China executes thousands of people a year, more than all other countries combined. The death penalty is often imposed for corruption and other economic crimes.
Chinese entrepreneur Chen Guangbiao has launched a line of canned air for the Chinese market, to give people something to breathe that isn’t the smog-filled Beijing air.
Chinese entrepreneur Chen Guangbiao has launched a line of canned air for the Chinese market, to give people something to breathe that isn’t the smog-filled Beijing air. Guangbiao, a billionaire who has become known for his stunts, is selling the product to bring more attention to the problems of pollution in China:
It comes with atmospheric flavours including pristine Tibet, post-industrial Taiwan and revolutionary Yan’an, the Communist Party’s early base area.
Chen said he wanted to make a point that China’s air was turning so bad that the idea of bottled fresh air is no longer fanciful.
“If we don’t start caring for the environment then after 20 or 30 years our children and grandchildren might be wearing gas masks and carry oxygen tanks,” said Chen.
The mass death of fish in a lake near Hamburg has been blamed on swimmers’ urine causing an algal bloom that has poisoned the water.
Around 500 dead fish have been found in the picturesque Eichbaum lake near the northern port city, which attracts bathers in the summery weather. But now it seems those pleasure-seekers have blood on their hands.
“Swimmers who urinate in the lake are introducing a lot of phosphate,” Manfred Siedler, spokesman for the Hamburger Angling Association (ASV), told Bild newspaper. “We’re calculating half a litre of urine per swimmer per day.”
Phosphate contributes to a build-up of blue-green algae in the water, playing havoc with the lake’s eco-system and apparently poisoning the fish. According to Bild, authorities have already tipped some 148 tonnes of anti-phosphate agent Bentophos into the water, at a cost of €516,000, but to little effect.
The Local understands that there has also been a longstanding feud between the anglers and the bathers over the lake.
Bathers are currently banned from the lake due to the high levels of algae, but the city’s Urban Development and Environment Authority (BSU) is working to fight it and re-open the lake.
The BSU believes that the fish deaths are not particularly unusual, and have been caused by a combination of natural causes and ice-skaters, rather than pee.
“The ice-skaters make a noise that wakes the fish out of hibernation,” BSU spokeswoman Kerstin Graupner told the Local.
“Then they can’t breathe and freeze. That’s a very common phenomenon.”
She underlined that though the fish have only been found in the past two weeks, they must have been dead for some time, judging by the decomposition.
BSU has since called in Hamburg University to test the pee-death theory, and says that apart from the high level of algae, the water is clean. “It is very rich in fish,” Graupner added.
But according to Bild, the first water tests are not encouraging – with a pH level of 8.7 (as opposed to the neutral 7), the lake is very alkaline.
Scientists have reportedly also found anabaena algae blooms, unusual at this time of year, which produce anatoxin-a. This causes the lake’s ammonium to change into the poisonous ammonia, which restricts the fish’s breathing.
Some of the fish in New York’s Hudson River have evolved resistance to several of the waterway’s toxic pollutants. Instead of getting sick from dioxins and related compounds including some polychlorinated biphenyls, Atlantic tomcod harmlessly store these poisons in fat. However, it may not be so good for the higher-ups in the food chain.