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The rising consequences of particulate pollution

Pollution is on the forefront of many people’s minds as worries over environmental health increase and spring haze is upon us. Warmer weather can often serve as a catalyst for dangerous chemical reactions and for pollutants to be released into the atmosphere. Certain kinds of pollution are especially dangerous for human and animal health.

What is particle pollution?

Particle pollution refers to a subset of airborne pollution that’s due to particulate matter (PM) suspended in the air. PM differs in size and severity, and is generally a mixture of solid and liquid. While some PM can be seen by the naked eye — think dust, soot or smoke — the most dangerous particles are also the smallest. The danger of PM depends largely on the size of the particles and can be separated into 3 general categories.

Particles larger than 10 micrometers (µm) in diameter are of the least worry for long-lasting human health concerns, but can still irritate sensitive tissue around the eyes, nose and throat. Anything smaller than 10 µm can pose great threat to internal organs because they are too small to be expelled by our body’s defenses against foreign invaders, like sneezing, watering eyes, coughing or blinking.

asbestos fibers
Asbestos Fibers

There are two further broad distinctions in particle size: coarse particles, which range from 2.5 µm to 10 µm, and fine particles, which are anything smaller than 2.5 µm. Fine particles can be further classified into ultrafine and nanoparticles, which are smaller than 0.1 µm.

Why particle pollution is a problem

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that 7 million people die annually as a result of polluted or substandard air quality. Pollution isn’t always the obvious cause, but it compounds existing conditions and can be the underlying cause of common killers like stroke and heart disease.

According to the WHO, 2.4 million heart disease and 1.4 million stroke related deaths per year are caused by air pollution. These numbers are only expected to increase, as the organization has also reported that 91% of people worldwide are exposed to air that does not meet the WHO’s healthy guidelines.

Particle pollution isn’t exclusive to man-made materials, as dust storms, forest fires, and pollen can also be dangerous for airways. However, shifting weather patterns due to climate change may be worsening air quality by creating natural disasters that compromise air standards. In the UK, the Department of the Environment measures outdoor air pollution on a 1 to 10 scale. Often the scale hits 10 (the worst) due to intercontinental winds that whip up dust from the Sahara Desert and distribute them as far north as Great Britain and as far west as the Caribbean Islands.

The BBC reported that these winds serve as the “tipping point” for poor air quality when coupled with emissions from road transport and residential causes. The UK is a repeat offender on substandard air quality and has been taken to the European Court of Justice three times over failure to curb air pollution.

Now, scientists are worried that the damage is so far gone that even efforts to fix these issues could have unfortunate repercussions. Professor David Stevenson at the University of Edinburgh has found that “cutting pollution could disrupt the formation of clouds which reflect heat from the sun back into space.”

“Air pollution and climate change are inextricably linked and we need to develop smart pollution control policies that take these links into account,” Stevenson went on to say in an interview with the BBC.

Common causes of air pollution

Threatening air pollution can occur both indoors and outdoors, splitting the WHO’s grand total of 7 million deaths per year into 4.2 million as a result of ambient air pollution, and 3.8 million due to indoor air pollutants.

Alarmingly, indoor pollutants may come from things we think of as unavoidable. Sources of light and cooking are among the worst offenders, as are the very materials homes may be built with. The WHO estimates that 3 billion people use polluting fuels like wood, coal, dung, and kerosene to cook their food, light their rooms and warm their homes. In developing nations especially, these are often the only ways to power homes at all.

Combustion isn’t the only cause of indoor pollution. A common concern like mold can have severe impacts on joint pain and respiratory health when allowed to get out of control. Additionally, older homes and buildings are prone to having particulate pollutants like asbestos and lead in foundational construction materials.

Outdoor pollutants are not purely limited to natural sources like dust and sand. The results of man-made industrial output are just as dangerous. Ground-level ozone is another danger to worry about, and the recipe for this toxic substance includes ingredients both man-made and natural.

Oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), are both emitted by vehicles, power plants, industrial factories, chemical plants, and other man-made sources. When NOx and VOCs mix together in the air they chemically react when exposed to heat and sunlight, creating a toxic cocktail of smog known as ground-level ozone, which can have profound effects on human health.

Health effects of particle pollution

The most obvious portion of the body affected by PM is the lungs. When these fine particles are inhaled, they irritate the lungs and the body is not able to expel them safely. The WHO reported that 43% of all lung disease and lung cancer deaths can be attributed to air pollution as an underlying cause. Many of the pollutants mentioned above contribute to this disheartening statistic.

picture of lungs with asbestos cancer
Asbestos Cancer

Construction material toxins like lead and asbestos may lead to rare conditions like lead poisoning, asbestosis and mesothelioma, the latter two of which affect the lungs and have high mortality rates. Ozone pollution leads to death less often, but consistent exposure weakens the lungs, making them more susceptible to other infections or diseases.

The brain itself is also at risk from PM; 24% of stroke deaths annually are caused by air quality concerns. Now, research shows that the polluted atmosphere may be having an effect on general cognitive abilities. A study conducted by UK researchers at the University of London, King’s College London and Imperial College found that incidence of dementia increases 40% in areas of high pollution.

This frightening statistic has very little explanation, as the study authors wrote: “While toxicants from air pollution have several plausible pathways to reach the brain, how and when they may influence neurodegeneration remains speculative.”

Internal organs aren’t the only systems affected by PM. Studies have also found that polluted air can have negative effects on fetuses in utero. Researchers at Queen Mary University of London have found amounts of soot particles in the placenta, suggesting that PM is able to pass into the umbilical cord. Dr. Tobias Welte, vice president of the European Respiratory Society, commented on the results of the study to Live Science.

“Air pollution is no longer a respiratory problem, it’s a systemic problem,” Welte said. “Our hearts, brains, kidneys and lymph nodes could be virtually full of these particles. The exposure of unborn children to these particles is particularly worrying as it can affect the development of their organs.”

Particle pollution on the rise

The American Lung Association’s annual State of the Air report found that air quality levels in the nation are getting lower and more citizens are being exposed to polluted air. The report also underlined that climate change is a large contributing factor.

“Rising temperatures lead to more ozone formation and conditions that result in more frequent and intense wildfires,” read the report, “putting millions more people at risk and challenging efforts to clean up air pollution.”

The report also urged lawmakers and citizens to take action to protect air quality and American health, especially given that 43% of Americans live in areas with unhealthy ozone and PM levels. However, new regulations meant to promote industry may be doing so at the expense of air quality and health.

Regulatory rollbacks, budget slashing to the EPA and relaxed regulations on toxic materials are all to blame. The current administration plans to decrease the EPA’s budget by a third and has been rolling back previous regulations on ambient air standards.

One such new regulation is the Significant New Use Rule (SNUR) that moves farther away from a full ban on asbestos. In June of 2018, the EPA proposed the new rule, which allows asbestos-containing products no longer being manufactured to be reviewed and allowed back into production after 90 days.

While the rule itself doesn’t explicitly allow asbestos back into production, it does represent the loosening rather than the tightening of regulations. Many of the comments received during the rule’s comment window lobbied for a full ban on the mineral instead of complicated new regulations.

How can changes be made?

With the future of regulations to curb emissions murky, individual action is more important than ever to mitigate particulate pollution. These actions can be twofold: both ways to reduce actual emissions and ways to avoid high levels of pollution to elevate your own health. These steps are especially helpful during the summer, when heat levels rise.

To prevent and avoid ozone, stay indoors during hot days and avoid using any combustion-powered machines. This includes cars, lawn mowers, boats, and motorcycles. Releasing these chemicals into the hot air will result in toxic fumes. Similarly, campfires and heat powered by burning matter will release smoke particles into the air, regardless of the ambient temperature.

Common sense measures like reusing resources, reducing energy usage and water consumption, consolidating car trips and switching to energy efficient products can have quite an impact. Making the switch to clearly labeled products that are free of harmful chemicals will also help.

Educating oneself about the specifics of climate change and pollution is essential to living intentionally. As the studies above mentioned, these two factors are interrelated, and citizens can take action to inform policies by commenting on proposals and voting for candidates who align with these goals.

The Bonvie Blog: A Toxic Topic’s Return

A Lesson from the Past Reminds Us How the Facts Are What Really Matter

By LINDA and BILL BONVIE

It was a bit like a case of déjà vu, only with a new dimension.

That was our reaction upon hearing the news that a Terminix employee had been indicted for illegally applying the highly toxic fumigation gas methyl bromide inside various residences in the U.S. Virgin Islands, including the St. John condominium resort complex where a Delaware family of four nearly died as a result back in March 2015.

As it happens, the use of methyl bromide in residential, structural and agricultural pest control, and its often deadly consequences, was the topic on which we began our writing collaboration (culminating last year in the publication of our book, Badditives!).methyl bromide molecule

Only back when we first broached this particular subject in print, all those uses were still quite legal – and there being no Internet at the time, much of our information came from trade publications and old-fashioned journalistic leg-work.

(At one point, one of us had occasion to meet the late farmworkers-rights crusader Cesar Chavez asking him what he could tell us about methyl bromide, which was being used to fumigate soil. He replied, “What can you tell us about methyl bromide?”)

We subsequently wrote a number of magazine articles on the widespread application of this invisible and odorless killer, which in the early ‘90s had begun to gain notoriety not so much for its lethality but as an ozone depleter. And, yes, they included horror stories, some even worse than the one in the Virgin Islands, such as the case of the little girl who died following a “tent fumigation” of her Savannah, Georgia home, after some of the gas got trapped in her mattress.

But the piece we wrote 25 years ago was the one that proved most memorable — and all on account of its post-script, which can be taken as a kind of object lesson in today’s fractured political climate.

It was done for a slick, glossy, 440-page monthly publication called The World & I, which described itself as “A chronicle of our changing era” — one that was quite comprehensive in its range of subject matter, as well as highly informative. It was also put out by The Washington Times, a paper with a distinctly conservative political slant owned by the Unification Church and founded by its head, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.

That’s right — a magazine published by the “Moonies.”

That fact, however, had no bearing whatsoever on the content of our article, “Fallout from a Pending Phaseout,” which was based on some rather time-consuming and scrupulous research.

And one aspect of it had to do with the way methyl bromide was being used in certain large food-storage facilities, including (at the time) the Hershey chocolate plant, which in 1990 alone vented more than 40,000 pounds into the immediate environment, much of it on weekends during the summer when crowds of visitors were enjoying the attractions at nearby Hershey Park.

So were we sure that these were accurate claims, and did we have any proof? Yes, and yes. The figures and dates we cited came directly from the Environmental Protection Agency’s own “toxic release inventory,” and had been provided to the EPA by the industries themselves — statistics that could easily be obtained by a reporter or anyone else who knew of their existence.

But after the article appeared in The World & I (along with a photo of the Hershey plant), it struck us that this was the sort of information that should be of considerable interest to print and broadcast media in the Harrisburg, PA vicinity, where the Hershey Corporation and its famous amusement park are situated. And we got to wondering whether they might pick up on our “scoop.”

That was when Linda got the idea of calling them while posing as a concerned parent about to take her family to Hershey Park and inquiring if they planned to do anything with the story.

And the reactions were somewhat surprising in their skepticism. One of the editors we contacted, for example, asked, “If this is such a big issue, why don’t we already know about it?”

But the really mind-blowing response came from the head of a TV news operation, who asked, “And just where did you read this, ma’am?”

“In a magazine called The World & I.”

“I see. And can you tell me who puts out this magazine?”

“It says it’s a publication of The Washington Times.”

“Oh, really? And do you know who it is that owns The Washington Times?”

When asked who that was, he responded, “Never mind. Just take your kids to Hershey Park and have a good time, and don’t worry about it.”

So, our extra-curricular discovery — that the veracity of a totally accurate article could be automatically dismissed, even by people in the news business who should have known better, due to distrust of the motives of the proprietor of the publication where it appeared — is one that continues to resonate a quarter-century later, perhaps more so than ever.

What our little experiment revealed was an apparent assumption back then that any disclosure contained in a journal whose owner had conservative leanings (and was the founder of a foreign religious cult, no less) was highly suspect, and probably deliberate disinformation. Today, what we keep hearing from a resurgent right, with encouragement from the current occupant of the Oval Office, is a mirror-image message: that the reporting you might read in papers like The Washington Post and The New York Times is not only biased, but actual “fake news” reflecting the supposed political agendas of their owners.

But the truth is that professional journalists, with few exceptions, are simply trying to do their jobs — which means doing their best to uncover facts, not twist them or engage in misleading fabrications in order to further an employer’s perspective.

By that, of course, we mean the kinds of skilled hunter-gatherers of genuine information that reputable news operations usually depend on to stay in business, no matter who owns them.

In our current internet era, however, many people have a regrettable tendency assume that legitimate media whose political leanings they don’t like are trafficking in trickery and deliberate deception, even while they give credibility to websites that make outlandish claims and promote preposterous conspiracy theories for example, school massacres were staged by people trying to turn the public against gun ownership.

And that’s where the business of being able to discern between real and fake news becomes especially tricky. Because often, the ones that are engaging in such unfounded and ridiculous rumor-mongering — an example being Alex Jones’s lunatic-fringe Infowars — will make assertions that are perfectly valid; e.g., mandatory vaccinations and fluoridation may be hazardous to your health.  And when they do so, they tend to actually give ammunition to people whose aim is to shoot down any legitimate doubts about the safety or advisability of such policies.

The point is that, no matter what your political persuasion, when you automatically assume that anything that appears to come from the opposing camp — even if it’s based on totally independent and nonpartisan research — is simply intended to fool you, you could well end up depriving yourself of essential information.

You could even be missing out on a revelation that might potentially spare you from exposure to a life-threatening poison gas on your next vacation.


Linda and Bill Bonvie, freelance writers based in Little Egg Harbor, NJ, are regular bloggers for Citizens for Health and the co-authors of Badditives: The 13 Most Harmful Food Additives in Your Diet – and How to Avoid Them.

The Bonvie Blog: Kratom

The good news is that there may well be a relatively simple way for many individuals now caught up in the ongoing nationwide opioid crisis to pull themselves out of it. And that’s no small thing, considering that that this man-made catastrophe has killed an estimated 20,000 Americans from overdoses in 2016 alone. The bad news is that the federal government is trying its best to make such apparent salvation illegal.

Stop 21st Century Cures Act

Although this is coveted as a wonderful bill that is needed in the US so that drugs and medical devices can be fast tracked, if you read the nearly 1000 pages it is clear this is dangerous bill that is has the best interests of the Pharmaceutical industry at heart, NOT its consumers.

The Transpartisan Review Blog Special Note #3

Walt Whitman’s “Election Day, November, 1884”

posted by A. Lawrence Chickering and James S. Turner

If I should need to name, O Western World!

your powerfulest scene to-day,

‘Twould not be you, Niagara – nor you, ye

limitless prairies — nor your huge

rifts of canyons, Colorado,

Nor you, Yosemitie, with all your spasmic

geyser-loops ascending to the skies, ap-

pearing and disappearing,

Nor Oregon’s white cones – nor Huron’s belt

of mighty lakes — nor Mississippie’s stream:

This seething hemisphere’s humanity, as now,

I’d name — the still small voice preparing —

America’s choosing day,

(The heart of it not in the chosen — the act

itself the main, the quadrennial

choosing,)

The stretch of North and South arous’d –

seaboard and inland — Texas to Maine,

The Prairie States – Vermont, Virginia, Cali-

fornia ,

The final ballot-shower from East to West –

the paradox and conflict,

The countless snow-flakes falling — (a sword-

less conflict,

Yet more than all Rome’s wars of old,

or modern Napoleon’s:)

Or good or ill humanity — welcoming the

darker odds, the dross, the scene’s debris:

–Foams and ferments the wine? It serves to

purify — while the heart pants, life glows:

These stormy gusts and winds waft previous

ships,

Swell’d Washington’s, Jefferson’s, Lincoln’s

sails.

(The is an original draft; for the final version Whitman published, click here).

The Transpartisan Review: Our Introductory Blog Post

By A. Lawrence Chickering and James S. Turner

As we noted in our introduction, The Transpartisan Review will concentrate on promoting new political ideas, ideas that bring people together who are now in conflict. Since the current debate focuses entirely on conflict, the approaches we explore will be hard to find in the current debate. Yet they are often essential to solve problems that otherwise seem insoluble.

Our political conflict is not only between the parties, between progressives (left) and conservatives (right); it is also within them. Conflict within is between freedom and order. There are thus four positions rather than two in our political field—freedom and order themes in both left and right.

We refer to these four positions as the Four-Quadrant Transpartisan Matrix—featuring social democratic and civil libertarian themes on the left and the traditional (especially religious) and libertarian themes on the right.

The conflict between freedom and order is at present more obvious in the Republican Party than the Democratic. Part of the reason (there may be others) is that the party in power (which holds The White House) can contain conflict more easily than the party out of power.

There is ‘truth’ in all four positions—partial truths. Ultimate truth, we believe, comes from integrating all four. Integrating all four will both bring people together and solve problems. The Matrix will be a recurring theme in the forthcoming posts and pages of the Review.

We will focus on key policy arenas such as education, criminal justice, and foreign policy, issues on which we are aware of transpartisan initiatives making headway.

Between now and the launch of the new online journal, we will post short Notes showing how the transpartisan impulse is in forms all around us. It will highlight report on real experiences where transpartisan approaches are solving real problems.

These examples often occur outside the formal political system. Since we hope the formal system will want to learn from them and incorporate them into formal government policy, we will also feature comments on how that might happen.

As contentions a matter as the Citizen United Supreme Court decision gives a taste of the opportunity. McCain-Feingold (aka the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002), the campaign finance law found partially unconstitutional by the court, represents order right (Republican McCain) and order left (Democrat Feingold), respectively. The immediate attacks on the law came from the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)—free right and free left, respectively.

Drawing on all four impulses the country is staggering toward a full-blown disclosure of the source of all campaign contributions. The transpartisan lens of the developing journal provides a way to look at virtually all contentious matters (issues) and suggest a different angle from which to evaluate them. We invite all of you to join the discourse.