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Showing posts from May, 2018

Air Pollution Hangs Over Sydney

A blanket of smoke covered Sydney earlier this week, raising some complex questions about how we balance public health and safety when it comes to air pollution.

Hazardous air quality levels were recorded across Sydney on Tuesday, with more than 60 people reported to require treatment for acute respiratory issues.  There was some exaggerated reporting about air pollution in Sydney being worse than Beijing - which is actually not shocking given that it is summer in the northern hemisphere and a same-day comparison is almost meaningless - but nevertheless, the recorded air quality index (AQI) values in excess of 200 (even above 400 in some locations) were dangerous, especially to vulnerable groups such as children, the elderly, and those with known respiratory issues.

The culprit in this latest pollution event was planned and controlled fuel reduction burns, which themselves are an unavoidable part of living safely alongside the Australian bush.  Unfortunately, the best conditions for c…

Europe Fighting it Out in the Courts over Air Pollution

It has been a long time coming, but today the European Commission referred 7 member states - France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, Romania, and the United Kingdom - to the Court of Justice for violations of air pollution limits on NO2 and PM10.  In the past the commission has been gun shy when it came to enforcing air quality legislation, letting repeated violations slide over the past decade.  However they have recently ramped up their actions, obtaining a favourable ECJ judgement against Bulgaria last year, and against Poland earlier this year.  As I discussed recently, Poland have the worst air quality in Europe by many measures, but have recently initiated a major program to improve heating and cut air pollution.  It is not unreasonable to connect this action to pressure from the European Commission, and hopefully today's events will see similar efforts elsewhere in the EU.  It should however be noted that the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Spain appear to have dodged a …

Is Someone Cheating on the Montreal Protocol?

The Montreal Protocol regulates emissions of ozone depleting substances.  It is ratified by every nation and bans the use of chemicals including chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), long lived substances which break down the stratosphere's protective ozone layer.  The international treaty has led to decreasing atmospheric levels of CFCs, and the ozone layer is beginning to recover.  It is now being reported, however, that atmospheric levels of one CFC (trichlorofluoromethane, CFC-11) have slowed their rate of decrease, attributed to a new CFC-11 source from Asia.

The origin of these new CFC-11 emissions are unclear, and will be difficult to pinpoint.  They may be from clandestine use of the banned substance, but could also arise from leaky CFC-11 stockpiles.  An international effort to investigate this issue now appears warranted, since it threatens to undo much of the good work of the Montreal Protocol.

CFCs are not the only threat to the ozone layer.  Recent studies have shown that the o…

When Climate and Air Quality Compete

Reducing carbon dioxide pollution comes with benefits to the climate that usually go hand-in-hand with efforts to improve air quality.  A new housing development planned for the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), however, has been warned that by going green it may in fact worsen air pollution.

In the ACT it is compulsory that new residential developments be fitted with natural gas infrastructure, which is used both for cooking and heating.  The new 350 home development of Ginninderry, however, has now been allowed to go completely electric in an energy efficiency trial.  The ACT has access to significant hydroelectric generators and has a commitment to completely switch to renewable electricity, making the move away from gas a good one for the climate.  An air quality impact assessment report from the EPA, however, has warned that it may harm air quality in the region.  Specifically, their report cautioned that the switch to electricity "will limit the choices available for spac…

Plastics Pile Up

China has effectively banned the import of waste paper and plastic, throwing recycling efforts around the world into chaos.  But what appears to be a crisis could turn out to be a good opportunity to question how we recycle.

I recently wrote about the impact of China's ban on Australia's recycling industry, and the dangers of stockpiling recyclable materials.  Here in Melbourne alone we've had a recycling plant fire last month, a paper and plastics stockpile fire that burned for multiple days in 2017, and a huge tyre fire in 2016.  Each of these fires was in an urban area, and I can remember smelling the smoke at the University of Melbourne in the heart of the city.  Alleged health impacts because of smoke from the 2017 Coolaroo fire form the basis of an ongoing class action lawsuit.

An alternative to dealing with paper and plastic waste is to burn it for energy.  Waste-to-energy incinerators are not ideal - they produce carbon dioxide and their emissions need to be filte…

Wood Fired Heaters Threaten Australia's Clean Air

Winter finally came to Melbourne today, bringing with it the smell of wood-fired heaters.  And as lovely as it is to curl up in front of a fireplace on a cold night, I'm here to remind everyone that they are absolutely atrocious for air quality.  Sorry about that.

A recent story in The Examiner highlighted how wood-fired heaters are negatively impacting upon Tasmania's air quality.  Wood smoke is also the biggest contributor to wintertime air pollution in Sydney.  The top tips for operating your fireplace from EPA Tasmania were to make sure you use dry wood and to get the fire burning hot by leaving the flue fully open for 20 minutes whenever adding new wood, and never let the fire smolder over night.  Further tips are available from EPA Victoria and the Department of Environment and Energy.

Operating your fireplace efficiently is important, but even when working correctly wood-fired heaters are bad for air quality, both inside and outside the home.  Australia needs to end its…

Methyl Bromide Leaves Residents Fuming

The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer has proven to be a resounding environmental success, halting and then reversing the depletion of stratospheric ozone caused by man-made halogenated compounds.  Although global efforts initially focused on long-lived chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), as their atmospheric levels have begun to decline it is emerging that "short-lived" ozone depleting substances with atmospheric lifetimes of months to years are playing an increasingly significant role, and they are also proving more of a challenge to eradicate.
The atmospheric chemistry of short lived ozone depleting substances is an area of research I'm currently working on, so I was intrigued to see one of these compounds - methyl bromide - in the news this week.  A proposal to build a large methyl bromide fumigation facility to treat logs in the North Carolina town of Delco has been met with anger from locals, who are concerned about potential health and environm…

Mixed Results in Air Pollution Scorecard

Air pollution is responsible for 7 million deaths annually, with 9 in 10 people worldwide breathing polluted air, according to new estimates from the the World Health Organization (WHO).

The WHO identify air pollution as a major global health concern, contributing to heart disease, stroke, cancer, and respiratory diseases.  To help address this they set guidelines for safe exposure limits to key pollutants including particulate matter (PM), ozone, and nitrogen dioxide, and also maintain a global air quality database which tracks PM2.5 and PM10 levels in 4000 locations worldwide.

Peering into the WHO data there are good and bad stories to tell.  Air pollution deaths are concentrated in South East Asia and the Western Pacific, where poor air quality coincides with high population densities.  Interestingly the latest data shows that the worst affected cities in these regions are predominantly in India, whereas air quality in China appears to be improving in the wake of citizen action and…

Naturally Sparkling Air in a Can

As Spaceballs foreshadowed, people are now buying air-in-a-can in a misguided attempt to deal with air pollution.  Oh shit, there goes the planet.

The Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar is in the midst of what UNICEF have termed a health crisis, with air pollution so bad that every child and pregnancy is at risk. The air pollution crisis in Ulaanbataar is the result of a booming population coupled with bitter winters and dirty coal and wood fired heating, leading to incredibly high levels of PM10 and PM2.5 particulate matter.  This has sent locals searching for remedies, including the attractive but ultimately useless canned oxygen.

Instead of getting your air from a can, there are effective strategies to deal with dangerously polluted air.  During an acute air pollution event the best thing to do is avoid it, by staying indoors and limiting activity.  Indoor air filters can help, whereas open fire places will make things worse.  If you need to go outside then a flimsy paper mask won…

Have Bosch Cleaned up Their Act?

Diesel engines have had a tough time of late, what with all the lying and cheating from VW and others caught up in the Dieselgate scandal.  It was with some skepticism then that I read the news that Bosch (who were central to Dieselgate) are claiming to have solved the problem of diesel NOx emissions.

Unlike gasoline (petrol) engines, the diesel drivetrain uses injection of the fuel to initiate combustion, and they time this so that it operates at a high thermal efficiency.  This gives diesel powered cars and trucks excellent fuel economy, but comes at the expense of air quality, with diesel being prone to the formation of soot and NOx.  Maintaining high fuel efficiency while keeping down emissions has been a key challenge for diesel automobiles, and was what drove VW to criminally conceal the true on-road emissions of their vehicles.

Now Bosch are making bold claims that they've made a breakthrough in diesel technology that can meet strict EU emissions standards, saving the diese…

Waste Not Wanted

Kerbside recycling programs around Australia have been thrown into crisis with China recently banning waste imports.  This ban includes waste paper and plastics, of which Australia exports a significant quantity to Asia, particularly China, where it can be processed cheaply.  In response, Australian recyclers are stockpiling these materials, local councils are looking to hike rates, and the future of kerbside recycling has been thrown into doubt.  In addition to threatening the viability of environmentally beneficial recycling programs, waste stockpiles represent a significant fire hazard and air pollution liability;  just last year for instance a recycling plant fire sent plumes of toxic smoke across inner city Melbourne.

Of course, there is one simple way to reuse paper and plastics: burn them for energy.  Waste to energy incineration is commonplace around the world, and with proper pollution controls and ash management it can be done cleanly.  However, there is little appetite in A…