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January 26th, 2013:

Air pollution and child health

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Air filters and face masks offer little protection to big city air pollution

Submitted by admin on Jan 27th 2013, 12:00am



Martin Williams

From costly air filters to cheap face masks, unless big cities tackle air pollution seriously the only sure protection is to move, says an expert

As I write, it’s a warm, sunny afternoon without a cloud in the sky. This looks like a lovely day. Yet checking the Hedley Environmental Index website, I find that air pollution levels are “very dangerous”, and from midnight to 1pm today there may have been four preventable deaths and 11,505 doctor visits attributable to breathing Hong Kong’s filthy air.

For the money minded, there’s also a counter indicating economic costs, which by the time of writing are more than HK$57 million and rising fast.


But even our filthy air seems almost pristine compared to the astonishingly dense smog afflicting Chinese cities including Beijing, where on January 12 the US embassy recorded 886 microgrammes of small particulates per square metre: that’s 35 times higher than the World Health Organisation’s short term (daily) air quality guideline, which should not be exceeded on more than three days in a year.

While Hong Kong’s former chief executive Donald Tsang seemed little concerned regarding air pollution, describing it as “a question of visibility”, his successor CY Leung has acknowledged that air pollution impacts public health. Indeed, research suggests that in Hong Kong, it results in more than 3,000 deaths and seven million doctor visits per year. Each kilometre reduction in visibility is associated with an increase in daily deaths from pollution; by Friday this week, visibility reported by Hong Kong Observatory was under 16 kilometres – well below the maximum of over 50 kilometres.

So, what can you do to protect yourself? One apparently promising countermeasure is using an air purifier. These have surged in popularity on the mainland, with sales through the Gome website recently up by 700 per cent compared with previous years. Even China’s leaders are using air purifiers, revealing a far less nonchalant attitude to air pollution than did Donald Tsang.

In autumn 2011, a manufacturer boasted of selling more than 200 of their US$2,000-per-unit air purifiers to the Zhongnanhai leadership compound.

Home air purifiers include devices that use electrical charges that cause particles to attach to surfaces or one another. But these can also create ozone, which is itself harmful to health. Some purifiers remove gases from the air, and may target relatively few chemicals. Others chiefly filter out particulates, the best being high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters, and these may be the preferred option for trying to reduce air pollution at home.

Yet though filters can indeed reduce particulate levels, there is little to provide confidence that they really safeguard health. “I would be wary about implying you can get a benefit from any kind of filter in the home,” says Anthony Hedley, Honorary Professor of the School of Public Health, the University of Hong Kong – who is a long-term advocate of better air quality and key developer of the index bearing his name.

Hedley would not argue against any measure which might improve indoor air quality, especially for people who have symptoms such as asthma. But in intensely polluted environments like Hong Kong excluding or controlling particles and gases from homes sufficiently to protect health is difficult.

“Filters can definitely reduce pollutants in a confined space but we need to go out to work and school and other activities of daily living,” he says. “In such a situation I don’t know of any good empirical evidence that there are long-term benefits from using filters, such as for asthma and bronchitis.” Hedley also remarks that it is out of the question that seven million Hongkongers can benefit from filtered air at home, as purifiers are costly.

In addition there is a question of how much difference a reduction in pollutant levels at home can make because “pollutants have most of their effects at relatively low levels compared with our usual daily exposures” Hedley says. “Even for intra-uterine growth in pregnant mothers, there are very clear effects of nitrogen dioxide or PM2.5 [small particulates] at levels way below WHO guidelines. The idea that filtering would make a difference to our overall exposures and risk in Hong Kong is probably pie in the sky.”

Even if filters are used by people who are more susceptible to air pollution, and who can afford it, Hedley notes this would exclude the most deprived and vulnerable people in society, who are more likely to live in older buildings where doors or windows are often open. And, with electricity consumption requiring fossil fuel burning, he wonders about the net benefit to economic health and quality of life.

There have been some studies on use of air filters for combating air pollution. In Canada, portable air cleaners reduced particulates in homes using wood stoves, and there were improvements to residents’ blood vessels, suggesting the filters might decrease the risk of health effects from the wood smoke. A Danish study found that HEPA filtration removed more than half of the ultrafine, fine, and coarse particles in homes of elderly people living near highways.

These results appear promising, but more research is needed to overcome the misgivings of experts such as Hedley.

Face masks are also used to combat air pollution, though Hedley considers the cheap paper masks a “waste of time”. In the 1990s his research team equipped Hong Kong police with neoprene masks with carbon filters. There were some improvements in health indicators, but Hedley recalls “the masks were uncomfortable and hot and the police didn’t like them – they looked like Darth Vader.”

Another way of reducing air pollution effects is to move from the worst hit areas. Some people – including Hedley himself – depart Hong Kong to avoid the pollution. Yet simply avoiding being too near busy roads might help a little, as some studies have shown traffic pollutant levels are significantly lower at distances of over 150 metres away. Then, Hedley says air is usually a little better the higher you are in a building. Even so, “in this filthy, high-pollution environment, it’s a challenge to protect yourself,” says Hedley. “The only way of minimising health impacts is to improve Hong Kong’s air quality.”

With this grim prognosis, and the fact cleaning our air would be a monumental task, it may be wise to turn to other kinds of indoor air cleaners: houseplants.

You can find these billed as “living air purifiers”, though sadly, benefits may be trivial. But at least they can look good, and with research suggesting greenery boosts health and well-being, having more houseplants around might make you just a little less stressed from wondering if you might become a Hedley Index statistic.



Air Pollution

Air filters

Face Mask

Beijing air pollution

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European Environment Commissioner calls for incineration limits
European Environment Commissioner calls for incineration limits

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Jan 252013

European Commissioner for the Environment Janez Potočnik has stated that he would welcome medium-term bans on the incineration of re-usable, recyclable and compostable material across all EU member states.

Janez Potočnik is reported to have told Materials Recycling Week (MRW) that: “Most of them [EU member states with less than 5% landfill] got there by using fiscal policy to gradually raise the cost of landfilling; some of them went so far as to ban landfills, and some are now considering bans on the incineration of certain types of waste…I would welcome such bans in the medium term in all member states, particularly for reusable, recyclable/compostable waste streams. It certainly won’t happen overnight, but there should be no doubt about the direction we need to take.”

Milestones of the European Commission’s September 2011 Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe include: “By 2020 EHS [Environmentally Harmful Subsidies] will be phased out….”; ”By 2020 a major shift from taxation of labour towards environmental taxation…”; and that “By 2020, waste is managed as a resource. Waste generated per capita is in absolute decline. Recycling and re-use of waste are economically attractive options for public and private actors due to widespread separate collection and the development of functional markets for secondary raw materials. More materials, including materials having a significant impact on the environment and critical raw materials, are recycled. Waste legislation is fully implemented… Energy recovery is limited to non recyclable materials, landfilling is virtually eliminated and high quality recycling is ensured.”

This was followed up in May 2012 with the European Parliament resolution of 24 May 2012 on a Resource-efficient Europe, including Action 33 which: “Calls on the Commission to streamline the waste acquis, taking into account the waste hierarchy and the need to bring residual waste close to zero; calls on the Commission, therefore, to make proposals by 2014 with a view to gradually introducing a general ban on waste landfill at European level and for the phasing-out, by the end of this decade, of incineration of recyclable and compostable waste; this should be accompanied by appropriate transition measures including the further development of common standards based on life-cycle thinking; calls on the Commission to revise the 2020 recycling targets of the Waste Framework Directive; is of the opinion that a landfill tax – as has already been introduced by some Member States – could also help achieve the above ends.”

Achieving the milestones would mean that by 2020 there would be less waste arisings, far less residual waste, and that incineration would be limited to non-recyclable non-compostable material. It also points towards increased recycling targets, an end to incinerator subsidies (as they are environmentally harmful) and the introduction of incineration taxes (as part of a move towards an increase in environmental taxes).

According to the European Commission’s 5 December 2012 European Resource Efficiency Platform Recommendations for short-term priorities, under the theme of “Specific incentives for reducing waste (targets, pricing, fiscal, eliminating residual waste)” it was stated that: “It should be investigated whether it would be useful to extend landfill and incineration taxes or bans (especially of recyclable and bio-degradable waste)”. According to the document, “the identification – through Member States’ reporting – and phasing out of environmentally harmful subsidies were seen as a clear priority;”.

Indeed, “Abolishing environmentally harmful subsidies and tax-breaks that waste public money on obsolete practices” is part of the 17 December 2012 Manifesto for a Resource-efficient Europe adopted by Janez Potočnik and other members of the European Resource Efficiency Platform.

The 22 November 2012 ‘First recommendations to Sherpas’ from Working Group III of the European Resource Efficiency Platform included discussions of the prospect for “Member States to introduce waste charging, taxes on landfilling and incineration of waste, and encourage recycling and re-use, ensuring that all major groups of users contribute adequately” and a “CO2 tax on non-ETS sectors” (which would presumably include the incineration of plastics as that involves the release of fossil CO2 but is not part of the European Union Emission Trading Scheme).

Meanwhile, the First Report of Working Group I stated that the Working Group showed support for: “The introduction of landfill and incineration taxes or bans (especially of recyclable and bio-degradable waste) that are properly enforced”. The report also notes that the view was expressed that: “EU subsidies should be linked to resource efficiency criteria, without creating a new level of conditionality that could hamper access for the poorest regions. In particular, no more incinerators should be built with EU funding, especially cohesion funds.”

Appendix 6 of the November 2012 Impact Assessment to The Commission proposal for a new general Union Environment Action Programme to 2020: identifies incineration subsidies as a barrier to the implementation of the waste hierarchy: “Concerning the application of market-based instruments aiming at creating the economic conditions to support the waste hierarchy, the main challenges are related to: …In some MS [member states], presence of harmful subsidies (e.g. to support incineration);…”

As UKWIN reported in September 2012, Janez Potočnik has also stated that: “…There are two major objectives we need to pursue. Obviously, landfill rates must go down as quickly as possible, but it is also important to switch from energy recovery to increased recycling. Plastic recycling rates are far too low across Europe with an average of just 24 per cent. Today, even in countries with high recovery rates, there is simply not enough plastic available for recycling because most of it goes to energy recovery. A dominance of energy recovery over recycling is not acceptable in the medium-term