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January, 2016:

Cars aren’t the major culprits of air pollution – Letters to the editor

It is depressing that “Clean Air Network believes demand-led management of private cars is the only effective means to … lower roadside air pollution in Hong Kong”, as Ms Kwong Sum Yin, the chief executive officer of the organisation, declares in her recent letter (“Restricting car usage is the only effective way to cut air pollution in Hong Kong [1]”, January 27).

Her misguided primary focus on cars is wrong for two reasons. First, it is wildly inaccurate. In 2013, the government produced a detailed analysis of the sources of roadside pollution by nitrogen oxides and PM10. Private cars then made up about 70 per cent of Hong Kong’s vehicles. But they contributed a mere 3 per cent of nitrogen oxide pollution, and 2 per cent of PM10. Goods vehicles contributed 44 per cent and 75 per cent, respectively, of these pollutants.

The dangers from private cars are minuscule, not just in absolute terms, but also in relative terms. A franchised bus produces 618 times more nitrogen oxides than a private car, while a minibus produces 398 times more PM10 than a private car, though being of similar size. In addition, cars run relatively infrequently, while lorries and buses are used continuously. Restricting private cars will have negligible impact on pollution, relative to the impact of better controlling buses and lorries.

The second reason Ms Kwong is wrong is that by attacking the private car owner (though I agree we should use road pricing to reduce congestion), she alienates the middle class while taking the heat off the vested interests that continue to spew poisons into our air and into the lungs of our children. This should not be Clean Air Network’s mission.

Our political leaders should engage this public health issue, and directly attack those who resist cleaning up our air and put private profit before public health.

Paul Serfaty, Mid-Levels

Users likely to take recycling hit

Broken-down air-conditioners, television sets and computers can all be recycled into valuable resources by next year, but the cost is likely to be passed on to customers.

Broken-down air-conditioners, television sets and computers can all be recycled into valuable resources by next year, but the cost is likely to be passed on to customers.

Secretary for the Environment Wong Kam-sing made the somber prediction yesterday at the start of construction of the HK$530 million Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Treatment and Recycling Facility at the EcoPark in Tuen Mun.

The facility, which is expected to be completed in mid-2017, will be able to handle 30,000 tonnes of electronic waste per year less than half of the 70,000 tonnes thrown away by Hong Kong households and companies.

Eight types of home electrical appliances would be taken to the facility for inspection. They will be repaired if found useful and donated to charities while those beyond repair will be broken down into small parts and recycled after removing harmful substances.

Other usable components and materials will be recovered for reuse and recycling.

Wong said the project is a significant step in the implementation of the producer responsibility scheme, which will require suppliers of these products to follow the “polluter pays” principle and pay an extra recycling fee for the electrical equipment they sell.

Manufacturers and importers of eight kinds of e-products air-conditioners, refrigerators, washing machines, television sets, computers, printers, scanners and monitors will also need to arrange a free removal service for consumers to deliver the old equipment to a competent recycler.

Wong is aware that the new cost could make it more expensive for Hong Kong citizens.

“The extra cost, if incurred, will be somehow shared among the related stakeholders that means the manufacturers, the retailers and the consumers. So it is not solely borne by the manufacturers, but throughout the process. There will be a commercial process that will somehow distribute the additional cost among them,” he said.

The government is looking to fully implement the scheme next year if the bill can be passed by the Legislative Council.

Wong said the Environmental Protection Department enhanced the mobile collection vehicle service last October to collect computers, rechargeable batteries, compact fluorescent lamps and fluorescent tubes in all 18 districts.

2 hawker centres to pilot food waste recycling systems

SINGAPORE: A two-year on-site food waste recycling pilot at two hawker centres, Ang Mo Kio Blk 628 Market and Tiong Bahru Market, was launched on Thursday (Jan 21).

The National Environment Agency (NEA) estimated that each market generates two to three tonnes of food waste daily, with the majority from stalls in the wet market and table cleaning operations. If the pilot is successful, food waste recycling could reduce the total waste generated from both hawker centres by up to 80 per cent, the agency said.

For instance, the machine at Ang Mo Kio Blk 628 Market, operated by Eco-Wiz, is able to convert one tonne of food waste into water within 24 hours. Customised microbes would break down food waste to convert it into water, and the water is then used for cleaning the bin centre.

Eco-Wiz took about a week to train the cleaners and hawkers to sort the waste collected at the market.

“They told us what we cannot put in and what we need to separate. For example, the prawn shells and egg shells cannot be thrown in,” said Ms Cindy Tan, a cleaner at the market. “It was more troublesome initially because we have to separate used tissues and food, but it’s okay after we got used to it.”

The Eco-Wiz food waste recycling machine. (Photo: Sherlyn Goh)

The Eco-Wiz food waste recycling machine. (Photo: Sherlyn Goh)

The machine at Tiong Bahru Market, under VRM Operations, grinds up food waste and mixes it with micro-organisms. The resulting mixture is stored on the premise in 15 1,000-litre tanks. When the tanks are full, they are transported off-site to be converted into bio-fertiliser for agricultural purposes.

Senior Minister of State for Environment and Water Resources and Health Amy Khor participating in a demonstration of the food waste recycling system at Tiong Bahru Market. (Photo: Sherlyn Goh)

Senior Minister of State for Environment and Water Resources and Health Amy Khor participating in a demonstration of the food waste recycling system at Tiong Bahru Market. (Photo: Sherlyn Goh)

(From left): Mr Ken Bellamy, founder and director of VRM Operations, with Senior Ministers of State Indranee Rajah and Ms Khor. (Photo: Sherlyn Goh)

(From left): Mr Ken Bellamy, founder and director of VRM Operations, with Senior Ministers of State Indranee Rajah and Ms Khor. (Photo: Sherlyn Goh)

Vendors at both markets install and maintain the food waste recycling machines, as well as train cleaners and stall holders to segregate waste.

VRM Operations said that getting cleaners and hawkers on board to separate the organic waste from other materials was not difficult after they addressed concerns raised by them.

NEA and VRM Operations have been engaging the hawkers since May last year. Efforts were intensified in the November and December period when they went from stall to stall to speak to hawkers and taught cleaners how to segregate the waste.

“This is an open situation where birds can fly in, so there are rules as to how to store materials that can go rotten so that the birds and rats don’t get attracted,” said VRM Operations’ founder and director Ken Bellamy. “We had to devise a type of bucket that was easy for them to see in quickly and then close after. We had to make sure that they could easily lift it so it wasn’t a big bin that two people could carry.”

When the winning bids were announced in October last year, NEA had said that the markets were selected based on the number and mix of their stalls. There are a total of 218 stalls and 342 stalls at Ang Mo Kio Blk 628 Market and Tiong Bahru Market, respectively.

The pilot, which is expected to conclude in December 2017, is part of Singapore’s efforts to become a zero-waste nation under the Sustainable Singapore Blueprint 2015.

Speaking at the launch, Senior Minister of State for Environment and Water Resources Dr Amy Khor said that apart from building up capability to recycle food waste, consumers have a part to play as well.

“We are not just looking at recycling food waste but actually the best way to reduce food waste is not to create it in the first place,” she said.

To that end, Dr Khor said that NEA has started outreach efforts to encourage members of the public to reduce food wastage at home. She added that the agency is also partnering with food retail businesses to redistribute excess or unsold food.

Food waste accounts for 10 per cent of total waste generated in Singapore. In 2014, 788,600 tonnes of food waste was generated of which 101,400 tonnes was recycled. The remaining food waste was disposed of at incineration plants, according to NEA.

Plastic to outweigh fish in oceans by 2050, study warns

At least 8 million tons of plastics find their way into the ocean every year – equal to one truckload every minute

Plastic trash will outweigh fish in the oceans by 2050 unless the world takes drastic action to recycle the materials, a report warned Tuesday on the opening day of the annual gathering of the rich and powerful in the snow-clad Swiss ski resort of Davos.

An overwhelming 95 percent of plastic packaging, worth $80 billion to $120 billion a year, is lost to the economy after a single use, according to a global study by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which promotes recycling.

The study, which drew on multiple sources, proposed setting up a new system to slash the leaking of plastics into nature, especially the oceans, and to find alternatives to crude oil and natural gas as the raw material of plastic production.

At least 8 million tons of plastics find their way into the ocean every year — equal to one garbage truckload every minute, said the report, which included analysis by the McKinsey Center for Business and Environment.

“If no action is taken, this is expected to increase to two per minute by 2030 and four per minute by 2050,” it said, with packaging estimated to account for the largest share of the pollution.

Available research estimates that there are more than 150 million tons of plastics in the ocean today.

“In a business-as-usual scenario, the ocean is expected to contain 1 ton of plastic for every 3 tons of fish by 2025, and by 2050, more plastics than fish,” it said.

“This report demonstrates the importance of triggering a revolution in the plastics industrial ecosystem and is a first step to showing how to transform the way plastics move through our economy,” said Dominic Waughray of the World Economic Forum, which jointly released the report and is the host of the annual talks in Davos.

“To move from insight to large-scale action, it is clear that no one actor can work on this alone. The public [and] private sector and civil society all need to mobilize to capture the opportunity of the new circular plastics economy,” he said.

A sweeping change in the use of plastic packaging would require cooperation worldwide among consumer goods companies, plastic packaging producers, businesses involved in collection, cities, policymakers and other organizations, said the report. It proposed creating an independent coordinating body for the initiative.

“Plastics are the workhorse material of the modern economy, with unbeaten properties. However, they are also the ultimate single-use material,” said Martin Stuchtey of the McKinsey Center for Business and Environment. “Growing volumes of end-of-use plastics are generating costs and destroying value to the industry.”

Reusable plastics could become a valuable commodity in a “circular economy” that relied on recycling, Stuchtey said. “Our research confirms that applying those circular principles could spark a major wave of innovation, with benefits for the entire supply chain.”

Al Jazeera and Agence France-Presse

The new generation of Buenos Aires trash pickers reenergizing recycling in the capital

The cartoneros of Buenos Aires are finally cashing in on the city’s newfound love of recycling. But the Argentinian capital still has a long way to go

Cecilia works a five-block strip along Calle Paraguay in Palermo, a hip district in downtown Buenos Aires. Opening a flap door at the bottom of a lime-green bin the size of an industrial fridge, her gloved hands reach in to fish out the contents inside. Plastic bottles, discarded cardboard, newspapers, a discarded cheque book and a set of bookends: all the items disappear into a large, heavy plastic sack that she ties up and leaves by the roadside.

“After we’ve finished, a truck from the cooperative comes and picks up the sacks and takes them back to the plant for sorting,” says the 34-year-old, who has been in the job for three years after a long stint of unemployment.

Dressed in a uniform of grey T-shirt and dark slacks with a reflective ribbon, she’s one of an emerging number of urban litter pickers being drawn into the formal labor system in the Argentine capital over recent years.

Under the city government’s Ciudad Verde (Green City) plan, over 5,000 people now collect a base salary from the state for emptying the bell-shaped recycling bins that began appearing on the street about 18 months ago. The plan is an attempt to ease a landfill crisis that reached its peak in 2012, when provinces around Buenos Aires began rejecting the city’s trash.

“People are recycling a lot more now, although we still find all sorts of stuff in the bins. I had a friend who found a tablet computer once. But, at the same time, some folks chuck in food and diapers too,” says Cecilia.

As she’s speaking, the janitor from a nearby apartment building hands her a bag of recyclable trash. “They know our routine, so they put the recycling aside for us most days now,” she says.

From litter pickers to recyclers

The transformation is remarkable. A decade ago, downtown Buenos Aires teemed with thousands of litter pickers (known locally as cartoneros), their numbers swelled by Argentina’s catastrophic economic collapse at the end of 2001.

Men, women and children would flock in from the poor suburbs of this city of some 13 million people, rifling through the garbage on street corners and doorsteps, before heading back to the suburbs with carts loaded with recyclables to sell to dealers at rock-bottom prices. The Tren Blanco, a former passenger train used by the waste pickers, became emblematic of the country’s straightened circumstances.

One of the principal protagonists in the fight to improve the rights of the city’scartoneros is Sergio Sánchez, president of the Argentine Federation of Litter Pickers and Recyclers, which represents the dozen or so recycling cooperatives that operate in central Buenos Aires. The federation is linked to the left wing Movement of Excluded Workers.“The first big change came in 2002 when Buenos Aires withdrew a long-standing law that made litter picking illegal,” says Santiago Sorroche, an anthropologist at the University of Buenos Aires. “The second came with the Zero Garbage law [in 2005], which aims to gradually reduce the solid waste going to landfill.”

A political mover and shaker, Sánchez is known as the “cartonero friend of the Pope”. Above his desk hangs a recent photograph of him in Rome with the Argentine-born pontiff, shortly after the latter baptized Sánchez’s infant son.

As part of a deal that Sánchez helped strike with the city government, registered litter pickers like Cecilia now collect a set salary of 5,200 pesos ($383) per month to empty the downtown recycling bins once a day. With the arrangement comes a minimal social security package and a small pension.

“The big difference today is that we’re treated as workers providing a public service for the city,” says Sánchez. “Before, people would look down on us and say we created a mess, plus the police would always hassle us.”

The entrenched prejudice towards litter pickers is well illustrated by a Buenos Aires judge, who once threw out a damages case brought by a cartonero who had been hit by a car. Worse, the judge proceeded to penalize the victim for breaking the city’s transport norms. He stood charged with pulling his cart on the road without lights.

Growing pains

Recent efforts to formalize their trade is broadly welcomed by cartoneros, but it remains far from perfect. For one, the new lime-green recycling bins are predominantly limited to the city’s richer neighborhoods. Even then, they are far outnumbered by similarly-sized bins for non-recyclable trash.

Residents’ attitudes are changing far too slowly as well. Although most of the recycling cooperatives run educational outreach initiatives, awareness of why and how to recycle remains minimal. “If the non-recycled garbage bins are full, people will just chuck their trash in the recycle bins,” says Sánchez.

The other main shortfall is state support. By attempting to recognize the litter pickers, the city government is essentially recognizing that the cartoneros are providing a public service. Yet the recycling cooperatives say they only receive a fraction of the funds provided to private operators contracted to manage the city’s domestic and commercial waste.

Cristina Lescano, head of the El Ceibo Cooperative to which Cecilia belongs, cites the example of the government’s new plastics recycling plant, which it inaugurated in December and whose management is outsourced to a private contractor. “We have to send our plastic to them, and then they send it back to us to sell as high quality pellets. Why don’t they just give us the machinery to do it ourselves?”

By the same token, Lescano argues that the city government should pay the recycling cooperatives a market rate for their work rather than the current subsidy. El Ceibo, which has 345 members and operates a sorting plant immediately behind a smart downtown shopping centre, has only 10 collection trucks. “With 10 more we could double the recyclable material we collect, but the government would prefer to invest in private companies – not a social business like ours,” she says.

Environmental activist group Greenpeace also argues that investment in recycling infrastructure remains woefully inadequate. It took seven years after the Zero Garbage law was passed for recycling bins to begin appearing in the city, according to campaign director Soledad Sede, and the government is reluctant to invest any more money.

Few hold out hope that Argentina’s new pro-business president Mauricio Macri, until recently mayor of Buenos Aires City, will push to extend the employment of litter pickers beyond the swanky downtown districts. Even if he wished to, responsibility for waste management is devolved to municipal governments, where public funding is tighter and litter picking less lucrative.

The biggest losers

Without doubt, those outside the formalization process occupy are in the worst shape. At a conservative estimate, cartonero groups calculate that at least 15,000 people in Buenos Aires depend on litter picking for their livelihood. Only about one third of those collect a subsidy, of whom only around half receive the full 5,200 pesos ($284). The other half receive 2,700 pesos ($199) per month. To make up the shortfall, they sell their pickings privately rather than have it collected by a cooperative.

In La Cárcova, a slum in the San Martín municipality of Greater Buenos Aires, the impact of the recent changes is being felt. Bordering one of the city’s main dumps, La Cárcova is home to generations of litter pickers. According to the slum’s residents, however, collection rates have dropped considerably for those outside the formal system. Not only do registered collectors have first dibs on the recycling bins, but the new street bins for unsorted garbage are often sealed.

“There’s less for us to recycle now because Macri and his coops have it all wrapped up,” says 35-year-old La Cárcova resident Silvina, a single mother of four. “The rubbish trucks pass all the time so there’s less and less for us to take.

Her neighbour Emilze, also a mother of four, is one of the lucky ones. She recently got a job at the privately-run recycling plant at the city dump, where she gets paid 200 pesos ($14.75) per day. Her mother, aged 62, who has worked as a litter picker all her life, now receives the 2,700-peso subsidy ($199) and is bused into the centre of the city every day in government-funded transport.

Asked if any of her children will become cartoneros, she shakes her head. They are all going to complete school, she insists. It’s true that for those in the system, litter picking is better than it was, she says.

“But at the end of the day, it’s still a dirty job.”

Hong Kong green activist given court go-ahead to challenge dumping of waste at Lantau wetland site

On a cold , damp day in a tucked away corner of south Lantau, buffalo stroll casually onto an expansive grassy wetland for a morning graze.

It makes for a tranquil, pastoral sight, apart from the metre-high mounds of rubble and construction waste piled up on several plots of land there. The eyesore at Pui O has irked local residents and villagers for years. Many also fear the buffalo could disappear as the greenery vanishes.

It therefore came as a pleasant surprise for them on Wednesday when the High Court gave the go-ahead for a judicial challenge against the environmental authorities for allowing such dumping on the wetlands, which are on land zoned for coastal protection but with an awkward patchwork of private, corporate and government ownership.

Mui Wo resident Christian Masset, a former chairman of green group Clear the Air, has been given permission to challenge the director of environmental protection’s decisions to allow construction waste to be dumped at four sites near the wetlands between 2014 and this year.

The sites are on the fringe of the wetlands between Ham Tim San Tsuen and Pui O beach, the court heard yesterday.

A visit to the site yesterday revealed that the marsh was still pockmarked with rubble. A mysterious rust-covered, half-built structure lay abandoned in one corner. One conservationist said these were “destroy first, build later” tactics.

“Landowners know officials can’t do much as the land is private and the likelihood of zoning getting changed is higher when the land is degraded,” said Save Lantau Alliance convenor Eric Kwok Ping. “When the opportunity for development comes, they say, ‘what wetland?’”

The Environmental Protection Department declined to comment on the case as the judicial process was under way, but stressed it did not accept any “destroy first, build later” behaviour.

The hearing on Wednesday centred on what Mr Justice Thomas Au Hing-cheung called a “vacuum”.

Barrister Jonathan Chang, for the director, argued that the environmental protection chief, once he was approached by a property owner, would acknowledge the request and give permission, but environmental considerations would not be taken into account.

Chang also argued that the Waste Disposal Ordinance suggested the need for a licensing system, but the relevant provision had not yet been put in effect.

The court refused to grant interim relief to Masset, who sought a halt to dumping until the judicial review was completed.

However, Au said Masset, represented by barrister Robin McLeish, was able to demonstrate the environmental risks involved and the sense of urgency in the case. The review is expected to start after both sides file related documents to the court.
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Zero Waste: A Short History and Program Description

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Communicating the Health Effects of Climate Change

As 2015 draws to a close, on track to be the hottest year ever recorded, global attention to climate change soared. ( The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), composed of more than 2000 of the world’s leading climate change scientists, has stated with confidence that the major driver of rising temperatures is human-generated greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide) largely related to the burning of fossil fuels (

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

These heat-trapping emissions have resulted in more frequent and prolonged heat waves, poorer air quality, rising seas, and severe storms, floods, and wildfires. Some extreme weather events, previously expected once in decades, are now being witnessed several times in one decade. These consequences fundamentally affect the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink, and the environments in which we live, as a number of sources have pointed out (such as publications in The Lancet ( and JAMA (, and Climate Change and Public Health (a collection articles on the subject) (, and a report from the US National Climate Assessment (NCA) (

The IPCC’s most recent report, (, as well as the third US NCA ( ) (both from 2014), detail how global warming threatens human health by amplifying existing health threats and creating new ones. Everyone is vulnerable. Some experts contend that these profound harms rival the fundamental public health challenges posed by the lack of sanitation and clean water in the early 20th century (

The many adverse health outcomes include heat- and extreme weather–related conditions, infections, respiratory conditions and allergies, and mental health conditions. Heat waves promote dehydration, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke while exacerbating heart, lung, and kidney disease. Patients using widely prescribed classes of medications that impair thermoregulation (such as stimulants, antihistamines, and antipsychotic agents) may be particularly at risk. Heavy rains heighten the risk of waterborne infections.

Warming can also potentially affect the number, geographic distribution, and seasonality of vector populations, with the subsequent spread of diseases such as Lyme disease and dengue. Temperature-associated pollutants—ground-level ozone (smog) and fine particulate matter—can compromise outdoor air quality, and heavy downpours can dampen indoor environments thereby triggering growth of allergenic molds.

Trauma associated with extreme weather conditions can precipitate mental health conditions, such as stress, depression, and anxiety. Of note, vulnerable populations can suffer from multiple, synergistic threats such as extreme heat, air pollution, and stress.

Despite these risks, most people in the United States still do not recognize climate change, or the way it damages human health, as a serious threat. A 2015 Gallup Poll of 1025 US adults found that while a majority of adults (66%) acknowledge that global warming is happening (or will happen) during their lifetime, only a minority (37%) believe it will pose a serious threat to their way of life ( A 2014 national survey of 1275 US adults (by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication) found that most adults (61%) have given little or no thought to the health consequences of global warming. Indeed, the image of climate change may be more likely one of stranded polar bears rather than asthmatic children struggling to breathe (

Clinicians have a powerful and unique opportunity to engage the nation by framing the crisis as a health imperative (such as articles in Family Medicine (, BMC Public Health (, Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, (, and American Family Physician, (, and a report from George Mason University) ( Doing so can educate and empower patients, policy makers, and the public. The above-mentioned Yale and George Mason University poll noted that when asked to rank various potential sources of information about health consequences of global warming, people in the United States were most likely to trust their primary care doctor, followed by family and friends and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Clinicians can fulfill that trust in a number of ways. Through their collective voice, they can broadly support a range of actions urged by policy makers to promote mitigation and adaptation.

Strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (mitigation) include measures to reduce energy consumption at work and home, decrease reliance on carbon-intensive fuels, and improve fuel economy. Strategies to enhance resilience (adaptation) include identifying vulnerabilities by geography and population, improving early warning systems for weather hazards, targeting preparedness and response activities, and creating climate-resistant physical infrastructures (including hospitals) and prepared workforces. By supporting the growing numbers of medical and public health organizations promoting such strategies, health professionals can build and shape community resilience.

The health community can also promote individual actions that address global warming and benefit health ( and ( Suggesting that patients substitute walking or biking for car transport, for example, not only has the potential to reduce carbon and other air pollutant emissions but also encourages exercise.

Clinicians can also direct messages at specific groups, making issues concrete and personal that might otherwise seem abstract and remote. Such messages can convey that climate change threatens health now, not just in the future; that children, the elderly, the poor, and those with medical conditions and some communities of color may be especially vulnerable; and that individuals can promote preparedness as a way to shape societal action. A number of resources are readily available on the web to guide communication (

Clinicians can also offer specific medical guidance about adverse health outcomes to help individuals assess their vulnerabilities and take action. For example, guiding the elderly, parents and children, outdoor workers, and socially isolated individuals to track heat and weather trends can help them connect to early warning programs, such as those that offer people the services of air-conditioned community centers during heat waves. They can communicate risks of waterborne disease outbreaks after heavy rains and advise those in high-risk areas how to take precautions to prevent bites from insects and ticks.

Educating patients with conditions such as asthma can encourage added vigilance during heat waves and periods of poor air quality, such as monitoring of air quality indices and pollen forecasts, and maximizing adherence to appropriate medications. Clinicians can offer coping strategies for those facing stress and trauma related to extreme weather events. All these messages, and more, can help people link the often distant and unfamiliar theme of global warming to immediate and familiar medical concerns.

In the face of one of the major global threats of our time, health professionals can make a difference. Engaging people in a health frame of reference for climate change represents a potential life-saving measure that promises profound benefits for both current and future generations.

Shock figures to reveal deadly toll of global air pollution

World Health Organisation describes new data as ‘health emergency’, with rising concern likely to influence decision over Heathrow expansion

The World Health Organisation has issued a stark new warning about deadly levels of pollution in many of the world’s biggest cities, claiming poor air quality is killing millions and threatening to overwhelm health services across the globe.

Before the release next month of figures that will show air pollution has worsened since 2014 in hundreds of already blighted urban areas, the WHO says there is now a global “public health emergency” that will have untold financial implications for governments.

The latest data, taken from 2,000 cities, will show further deterioration in many places as populations have grown, leaving large areas under clouds of smog created by a mix of transport fumes, construction dust, toxic gases from power generation and wood burning in homes.

The toxic haze blanketing cities could be clearly seen last week from the international space station. Last week it was also revealed that several streets in London had exceeded their annual limits for nitrogen dioxide emissions just a few days into 2016.

“We have a public health emergency in many countries from pollution. It’s dramatic, one of the biggest problems we are facing globally, with horrible future costs to society,” said Maria Neira, head of public health at the WHO, which is a specialist agency of the United Nations. “Air pollution leads to chronic diseases which require hospital space. Before, we knew that pollution was responsible for diseases like pneumonia and asthma. Now we know that it leads to bloodstream, heart and cardiovascular diseases, too – even dementia. We are storing up problems. These are chronic diseases that require hospital beds. The cost will be enormous,” said Neira.

Last week David Cameron, whose government has been accused of dragging its feet over air pollution and is facing legal challenges over alleged inaction, conceded in the Commons that the growing problem of air pollution in urban areas of the UK has implications for major policy decisions such as whether to expand Heathrow airport.

Asked by Tory MP Tania Mathias to pledge that he would never allow Heathrow to expand while nitrogen dioxide levels are risking the health of millions, Cameron said she was right to raise the matter, which was now “directly being taken on by the government”. Last December, after warnings from the Commons environmental audit committee and others, Cameron put off a decision on Heathrow expansion for at least another six months.

Government sources say Cameron and other ministers are now taking the air pollution issue far more seriously. In 2014 the prime minister was widely criticised for describing it as “a naturally occurring weather phenomenon”.

According to the UN, there are now 3.3 million premature deaths every year from air pollution, about three-quarters of which are from strokes and heart attacks. With nearly 1.4 million deaths a year, China has the most air pollution fatalities, followed by India with 645,000 and Pakistan with 110,000.

In Britain, where latest figures suggest that around 29,000 people a year die prematurely from particulate pollution and thousands more from long-term exposure to nitrogen dioxide gas, emitted largely by diesel engines, the government is being taken to court over its intention to delay addressing pollution for at least 10 years.

The NGO ClientEarth, which last year forced ministers to come up with fresh plans to tackle illegal nitrogen dioxide levels in British cities, said that it would seek urgent court action because the proposed solutions would take so long to implement and produce cleaner environments. Under the latest government plan, announced before Christmas, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) promised clean air zones for five cities by 2020 in addition to one already planned for London. But this will mean it will years before cities such as Manchester, Cardiff and Edinburgh feel the benefits.

Frank Kelly, director of the environmental health research group at King’s College London, and an adviser to several governments on the health risks of pollution, told the Observer that air pollution had become a “global plague”.

“It affects everyone, above all people in cities. As the world becomes more urbanised, it is becoming worse.”

Sotiris Vardoulakis, head of Public Health England’s environmental change department, said: “It’s the leading environmental health risk factor in the UK, responsible for 5% of all adult mortality. If we take action to reduce it, it will have multiple health co-benefits like lower greenhouse gas emissions and healthier cities. Air pollution has an impact on NHS spending, but we have not quantified it.”

A new report from the EU’s European Environment Agency (EEA) says pollution is now also the single largest environmental health risk in Europe, responsible for more than 430,000 premature deaths. “It shortens people’s lifespan and contributes to serious illnesses such as heart disease, respiratory problems and cancer. It also has considerable economic impacts, increasing medical costs and reducing productivity,” said the EEA director Hans Bruyninckx.

Leading economist Lord Stern said air pollution was an important factor in climate change. “Air pollution is of fundamental importance. We are only just learning about the scale of the toxicity of coal and diesel. We know that in China, 4,000 people a day die of air pollution. In India it is far worse. This is a deep, deep problem,” he said.

The latest scientific research, published in the journal Nature, suggests that air pollution now kills more people a year than malaria and HIV combined, and in many countries accounts for roughly 10 times more deaths than road accidents.

According to the WHO, air quality is deteriorating around the world to the point where only one in eight people live in cities that meet recommended air pollution levels.

On Monday the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, will give evidence in a trial of 13 climate change activists who occupied a Heathrow runway in July, delaying or cancelling flights. The Labour MP, whose Hayes and Harlington constituency includes Heathrow airport, has been a prominent opponent of the airport’s expansion and has strongly backed local residents who are resisting a third runway. At a rally in October he said: “In my constituency at the moment, people are literally dying. They’re dying because the air has already been poisoned by the aviation industry.”

Giant icebergs play ‘major role’ in ocean carbon cycle

Giant icebergs could be responsible for the processes that absorb up to 20% of the carbon in the Southern Ocean’s carbon cycle, a study suggests.

Researchers say meltwater from these vast blocks of ice release nutrients into the surrounding waters, triggering plankton blooms that absorb the carbon.

Described as the first study of its kind, the authors examined satellite data between 2003 and 2013.

The results have been published in the journal Nature Geoscience.

A team of scientists gathered data from 175 satellite images that tracked the passage of 17 giant icebergs (measuring more than 18km/11 miles in length) through the open waters of the ocean surrounding Antarctica.

Writing in their paper, the team observed: “We detect substantially enhanced chlorophyll levels, typically over a radius at least 4-10 times the iceberg’s length, which can persist for more than a month following passage of a giant iceberg.”

They added that these findings suggest “this area of influence is more than an order of magnitude (more than 10 times) larger than that found for sub-kilometre scale icebergs.”

Co-author Grant Bigg from the University of Sheffield, UK, said the results showed that giant icebergs had “much bigger plumes of phytoplankton (microscopic plant-like free-floating organisms) production in the ocean as a result of fertilisation by the iron that is in the meltwater… than we had previously expected.

“This means that the role of giant icebergs in the Southern Ocean carbon cycle is bigger than we had previously suspected,” Prof Bigg told BBC News.

When there is an increase in the availability of nutrients in the water, there is a corresponding increase in phytoplankton production.

These tiny organisms behave in a similar manner to plants on land, meaning that in order to obtain the necessary energy to grow and reproduce, they undergo a process of photosynthesis, which includes the absorption of carbon dioxide. When the phytoplankton dies, it sinks to the ocean floor, locking away the carbon it had absorbed.

‘Carbon storage’

Prof Bigg explained that about 3,000 giant icebergs were present in the Southern Ocean at any one time, allowing the team to calculate how much carbon was being locked away in the depths of the ocean as a result of the plankton blooms triggered by the nutrient-rich meltwater from giant icebergs.

“We estimate that giant icebergs account for between 10% and 20% of the actual vertical rate of carbon going from the surface to the deep (Southern) Ocean,” he suggested.

“If giant iceberg calving increases this century as expected, this negative feedback on the carbon cycle may become more important than we previously thought.”

Plankton scientist Dr Richard Kirby, who was not involved in this study, observed: “The phytoplankton at the sunlit surface of the sea has played a central role in the sequestration of carbon over millennia to affect the atmospheric concentration of this greenhouse gas, and so the Earth’s climate.

“This interesting paper shows how much we still have to learn about these microscopic organisms, and how a changing climate may affect them, and also the food web they support.”