Over the course of this blog, there have been countless "Air Pollution Linked to….." headlines. Not just diseases or illness you might associate with breathing bad air like COPD, or heart disease, or strokes, but Parkinson's, immune system breakdowns, Autism and so forth – ailments that seem to be skyrocketing even as Americans as a whole receive better medical care and live longer. Almost all the time these ailments are tied to "ambient" levels of air pollution, i.e. levels you might encounter if you lived in a typical city or…downwind of a large polluter.
The latest example of this phenomenon is study from Columbia University's Center for Children's Environmental Health, linking ambient levels of a particular kind of air pollution and the risk of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD in young children. The air pollution in question is a familiar one to Downwinders – Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons, or PAHs, that include a variety of nasty substances, including benzo[a]pyrene. PAHs are produced by from "incomplete combustion."
Downwinders first encountered PAHs because of the long list of "Products of Incomplete Combustion" from the burning of hazardous waste in the Midlothian cement plants. But they can be produced from the burning of fossil fuels, tobacco, or the organics that might be in a gas well flare. In addition, they can also show up in the food we eat.
In the Columbia study, 233 non-smoking African-American and Dominican pregnant women and their off spring living in New York City were followed for nine years. Almost half the children started out with detectable levels of PAHs in their cord blood at birth. As the study's authors point out, this is worrisome because "during the fetal period and early childhood years, the brain is rapidly developing and vulnerable to neurotoxic insults that may manifest as adverse outcomes in childhood and adulthood."
And that's exactly what the researchers found. Prenatal exposure to PAHs in umbilical cord blood at delivery was associated with developmental delay at age 3, reduced IQ at age 5, and symptoms of anxiety/depression and attention problems at ages 6–7. By age 9, children whose mothers had higher levels of PAHs in them at birth were five times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than those with lesser levels.
It's important to remember that this affect was caused by exposure levels in the ambient NYC air, not particularly "dirty air" by traditional standards. Populations who live downwind of coal plants, cement plants, large gas plays, or any large, continuing source of PAHs might be expected to experience higher rates of impact because their exposure levels are higher.
And although this study focused on PAHs, the study notes that previous studies have identified "an association between ambient particulate matter (PM10) and childhood ADHD," a combustion pollutant even more common than PAHs.
Studies like these raise the same question time and again: how much of our current epidemic of childhood behavioral and developmental problems are caused by environmental factors within our control? With each successive year of research, we find links between "ambient levels" of environmental contaminants and a long list of health problems never before associated with pollution.
They also highlight the complete inadequacy of our current way of regulating pollution. As long as we're only regulating it from each source, instead of from a cumulative perspective, we're always be overdosing people with contaminants. By themselves, many different sources of air pollution can be churning out "safe" levels of things that can kill you. Combined downwind, not so much.
Sometimes it takes a perspective above the grind of trench warfare to give you a better sense of what the entire battlefield looks like. That's what UT Law Professor Rachel Rawlins has done for Barnett Shale activists with the recent publication of her article "Planning for Fracking on the Barnett Shale: Urban Air Pollution, Improving Health Based Regulation, and the Role of Local Governments" in the new Virginia Environmental Law Review.
Don't let the academic title fool you. This is a call for a radically new approach to how communities in Texas regulate the risks of fracking, and every other type of heavy industry. We put the link up for the piece on our Facebook page on Saturday based on a quick reading of its commentary on the Flower Mound cancer cluster, but it's more, so much more than that. Among other things, it's a comprehensive rebuttal of every claim of safety and well-being ever issued by the industry or state authorities about the health of residents living in the Barnett Shale, of which the Flower Mound case is only one example. Rawlins has produced a one-stop catalog of each major air pollution health controversy in the Barnett since concerns began to grow in the last decade, with an almost 30-page review of why no industry or government-sponsored study of fracking pollution and its health effects is a satisfactory response to those concerns. Want to convince your local officials that fracking isn't as safe as it's touted? Here's the staggering blow-by-blow commentary to do it.
But all of that documentation is presented in service to making the point that current state and federal regulation of fracking is failing to protect public health, both in design and in practice. Professor Rawlins' solution to this problem is not to give the state and federal government more power to regulate the gas industry. No, it's to turn the current regulatory framework upside down and give more power to local governments to do the things that the state and federal government should be doing.
In making this recommendation, she echoes the strategy that's been driving Downwinders since it was founded – that the best way to regulate pollution problems is at the local level where the most harm is being done, and it should be directed by the people being harmed. This is what drove our Green Cement campaign that closed the last obsolete wet cement kiln in Texas. This is what fueled our campaign to close down the trailer park-come-lead smelter in Frisco. And it's what was behind the recent Dallas fights over drilling. In each case, it wasn't Austin or Washington DC that was the instrument of change – it was local governments, pressed by their constituents, flexing their regulatory powers. The same thing is driving activists in Denton who are organizing the ban fracking petition drive and vote.
This strategy avoids battles where industry is strongest – in the halls of the state capitol and in DC, where citizens are outspent millions to one. Instead, it takes the fight to neighborhoods where the harm is being done or proposed, where people have the most to lose, where the heat that can be applied to elected officials is more intense. Citizens will still get outspent, but the money doesn't seem to buy corporations as much influence among those actually breathing the fumes of the drilling site, or smokestack.
Particularly now, with corporate-friendly faux-Tea Party types in control of state government and the House of Representatives in DC, there is little room for grassroots campaigns to make a difference by passing new legislation. Even if by some miracle a few bills did pass, their enforcement would be up to the same state or federal agencies that are currently failing citizens. Local is more direct, and more accountable. Professor Rawlins agrees, and spends most of the rest of her 81-page journal article citing the ways in which local control of fracking in the Barnett Shale is hampered by the out-dated top-down approach to regulation, and what should be done to fix that.
Included in her recommendations are two long-term Downwinders projects: Allowing local governments to close the "off-sets" loophole for the gas industry that exempts them from having to compensate for their smog-forming pollution in already smoggy areas like DFW, and creating California-like local air pollution control districts that could set their own health based exposure standards and pollution control measures without having to go through Austin or DC.
If there's a single major fault in Rawlins's analysis, it's that she believes more local control of pollution risks is itself dependent on action by an unwilling state government. But Downwinders and others have shown that isn't true. Our most significant and far-reaching victories – from the closing of the Midlothian wet kilns to the new Dallas drilling ordinance – have all taken place while Rick Perry was Governor and the state legislature was in the hands of our opponents. We did these things despite Austin, not because we had its permission. Local zoning laws, local permitting rules, local nuisance acts, and other local powers are under-utilized by both residents and their elected officials when it comes to pollution hazards.
The same is true now of Downwinders' off-sets campaign aimed at the gas industry. We think we've found a way to avoid the "preemption" argument that would keep local governments from acting on smog pollution from gas sources by aiming the off-sets at Greenhouse gases – an area of regulation Texas is loathe to enter. By targeting GHG reduction, we also reduce a lot of toxic and smog-forming air pollution. It's a back door way, but it accomplishes the same goal. It's going to be up to Texas activists to sew similar small threads of change through an otherwise hostile political environment.
Even given that flaw, Professor Rawlins' introduction to her article is the most concise summary of the air pollution problems caused by gas mining and production in the Barnett, as well as the most credible call to action for a new way of doing business there. Here it is reprinted in full for your consideration:
In the last decade hydraulic fracturing for natural gas has exploded on the Barnett Shale in Texas. The region is now home to the most intensive hydraulic fracking and gas production activities ever undertaken in densely urbanized areas. Faced with minimal state and federal regulation, Texas cities are on the front line in the effort to figure out how best to balance industry, land use, and environmental concerns. Local governments in Texas, however, do not currently have the regulatory authority, capacity, or the information required to closet he regulatory gap. Using the community experience on the Barnett Shale as a case study, this article focuses on the legal and regulatory framework governing air emissions and proposes changes to the current regulatory structure.
Under both the state and federal programs, the regulation of hazardous air emissions from gas operations is based largely on questions of cost and available technology. There is no comprehensive cumulative risk assessment to consider the potential impact to public health in urban areas. Drilling operations are being conducted in residential areas. Residents living in close proximity to gas operations on the Barnett Shale have voiced serious concerns for their health, which have yet to be comprehensively evaluated. Given the complexityof the science, and the dearth of clear, transparent, and enforceable standards, inadequate studies and limited statistical analysis have been allowed to provide potentially false assurances. The politically expedient bottom line dominates with little attention paid to the quality of the science or the adequacy of the standards.
Determining and applying comprehensive health-based standards for hazardous air pollutants has been largely abandoned at the federal level given uncertainties in the science, difficulties of determining and
measuring “safe” levels of toxic pollutants, and the potential for economic disruption. Neither the state nor the federal government has set enforceable ambient standards for hazardous air pollutants.
Identifying cumulative air pollution problems that may occur in urban areas, the State of California has called upon local governments to identify “hot spots” and to consider air quality issues in their planning and zoning actions. In Texas, however, preemption discussions dominate the analysis. Any local government regulation that might provide protection from toxic air emissions otherwise regulated by the State must be justified by some other public purpose.
Texas should consider authorizing and encouraging local level air quality planning for industrial activities, similar to what California has done. Care should be taken to separate these facilities from sensitive receptors and “hot spots” that may already be burdened with excessive hazardous air emissions. Given the difficulty of the task, there is also an important role for the state and federal governments in working to establish ambient standards for hazardous air pollutants, as well as standards for health based assessment and public communication. The uncertainty inherent in any of these standards should be made clear and accessible to local governments so that it may be considered in making appropriate and protective land use decisions. Texas should consider allowing local governments to have the power to establish ambient air quality standards, emissions limitations, monitoring, reporting, and offsets for hazardous air pollutants, following the model applied to conventional air pollutants pursuant to the federal program.
Professor Rawlins' article provides Barnett Shale activists with a new map to guide them toward more effective action. We'd all do well to study it and pick local battles that promise to contribute toward its realization.
We're a bit behind the curve in reporting on this, but scientists at the University of North Carolina just published a study in "Environmetnal Research Letters" that estimates Particulate Matter and Ozone pollution in the air is responsible for approximately 2.2 million deaths worldwide every year.
Long-timers already know about how insidious Particulate Matter can be, but this only chronicles the hardcore fatal respiratory and cardiovascular impacts, concluding the tiny particles of soot cause at least 2.1 million deaths every year while ozone pollution shortens another 500,000 lives.
"East Asia," aka China, accounts for fully have of both those figures. India for another third. In North America, the casualties include 43,000 premature deaths from PM pollution and 33,000 from ozone.
Jason West, co-author of the study said: "Outdoor air pollution is an important problem and among the most important environmental risk factors for health."
Although alarming, these numbers are all underestimates of the health impacts of both of these pollutants, since they exclude anything other than fatalities. Besides making it harder to breathe, PM pollution has been linked to brain disorders and immune system disruptions.
At least 600 tons of air pollution a day caused by the oil and gas industry in Colorado is causing a lot of consternation, especially in the Denver Metro area, which, like DFW, is currently out of compliance with the Clean Air Act for ozone, or smog.
Oil and gas emissions now are the main source of volatile organic compounds in Colorado and the third-largest source of nitrogen oxides, at a time when a nine-county area around metro Denver is already failing to meet federal clean-air standards, state data show.
Around 2003 or so, the Dallas Morning News editorial board convened a roundtable of air pollution stakeholders and more or less facilitated a discussion of what could be done to clean up DFW's dirty air. You see, the area still hadn't complied with the 1997 national smog standard and more and more official air quality monitors were in violation of it. Pretty much, just like now.
There was a memorable moment when one of the "environmentalists" at the table noted that for decades the Texas utility industry had been primarily reliant on natural gas for its power source, then switched almost entirely to coal during the 70's and 80's, exactly when the nation's first national air quality standards were being written and enforced. "Part of the problem is that there doesn't seem to have been any planning for the consequences of the industry switching over from one source to the other just like that. It's like a frenzied mob group of stockbrokers running back and forth between bidders."
"That's the marketplace," huffed a utility industry representative. And indeed it still is. One frenzied run after another back and forth between the two largest sources of fossil fuel.
You know the scene in Pirates of the Caribbean, At World's End where the crew runs back and forth, from each side of the ship, until it eventually turns upside down? It's like that, only with money doing the running. And it never ends.
That DMN discussion was only a decade ago. What happened next shows how quickly those runs can reverse themselves and the conventional wisdom. Fracking technology delivered new shale plays that flooded the market with new gas. So much new gas, that the price of it dropped to historic lows. That caused a huge switch in the utility industry. Gas was cheaper, so the coal-powered plants started to close and be replaced by gas-powered plants. At the same time the chemical industry, which uses voluminous amounts of gas in production of plastics and other products, announced a new wave of domestic construction because of cheaper gas supplies in the US. Finally, in order to prop-up the low gas prices that that are killing profits, the gas industry itself promoted the fuel for transportation use and export.
And students, what happens when all these elaborate plans to take advantage of cheap gas begin to blossom? Demand increases. Cheap gas turns into not-so-cheap gas. And then coal begins to look pretty good again. All of a sudden it's the negative image of 2003, and all that money is starting to run toward coal as gas prices rise.
And what that means is that the higher methane levels causing climate change are replaced by higher CO2 levels causing the same climate change. This is why we need to get out of the rut we're in where our choices are determined by short-term financial gain and not long-term survival.
Government puts its finger on the scales in the marketplace all the time to help this or that industry. Without government guarantees, whole sectors of the economy would not be able to function in a completely unfettered market. This is what the CO2 cap and trade system was designed to do – make the marketplace respond to pressures put there by government in order to achieve a goal of reducing the stuff that will make the place we live less habitable. But it was all a communist plot,or something like that. So in the meantime, we continue to slosh back and forth.
From the Houston Chronicle comes this summary of the latest trends:
After years of declining greenhouse gas emissions, Texas and other states reported sharply higher levels of carbon dioxide in 2012 as electric generating plants began to use more coal when natural gas prices began to rise, according to a study released Thursday.
Citing research done by the Environmental Integrity Project, Texas once again led the nation in CO2 from power plants in 2012, emitting 251 million tons. Florida was a distant second at 120 million tons. Just five states accounted for one-third of the nation's CO2 power plant emissions. Besides Texas and Florida, they include Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Ohio. Needless to say. the old TXU plants in East and Central Texas run by corporate off-spring Luminant are the largest contributors.
The price of gas will continue to go up and coal will be competitive. Or maybe it will go down and coal won't be attractive. Maybe we'll be downwind of lots more coal plant pollution. Or maybe we'll all have a rig or compressor station in our backyard. Who can say? That's the marketplace! The question is, do you want to bet our survival on it?
The more Ozone and Particulate Matter pollution a baby in the womb is exposed to, the more likely he or she will be born with autism according to a new UCLA study published March 1st in Environmental Health Perspectives, a peer-reviewed journal published by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. It's the largest study of its kind to date and is the first to link autism with ozone, or smog, levels.
Researchers compared levels of air pollutants, mostly related to vehicle traffic, during pregnancy gestation periods of 7,603 children with autism and 75,635 children without autism, born from 1995 to 2006 in Los Angeles. Babies at the 75th percentile of exposure to toxins had a 8 percent to 10 percent higher risk of autism than babies at the bottom 25th percentile, the study said. Ozone and fine particulates had the strongest association with autism.
Using government air monitoring stations, researchers estimated average exposures during pregnancy to carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, nitric oxide, ozone and particulate matter. The study adjusted for factors that include maternal age, birthplace, race and education. Using birth certificates, researchers compared control children with non-control children who had matching birth year, sex and gestational age at birth.
"These findings are of concern, since traffic-related air pollution is ubiquitous," said Dr. Beate Ritz, chair of UCLA's Department of Epidemiology and the study's senior author. She said she was reluctant to advise expectant mothers to leave LA or polluted cities, because that's not an option for many. "We can't tell them to not breathe or not go outside or not go to work," she said. She did recommend avoiding sitting in traffic, when pollutant exposure is worst."
Autism is a spectrum of disorders ranging from a profound inability to communicate and mental retardation to milder symptoms seen in Asperger's syndrome. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that autism affects one in every 88 children born in the U.S., a 25 percent increase from 2006.
A study in 2010 was the first to look at autism and toxins specifically from auto exhaust. The study, based in California, reported that children born to mothers living within 9/10 mile of a freeway during pregnancy were more likely to be diagnosed with autism than children whose mothers lived more than 1/4 mile from a freeway. However, the sample size — 304 autism cases and 259 controls — was much smaller than the just-published UCLA study.
Most policy discussions concerning air pollution in DFW surround the damage done to lungs, or maybe hearts and lungs. Rarely are the other, now well-known associations between air pollution and birth defects, or air pollution and brain function mentioned. And even rarer is the fact mentioned that these harms are often occurring at levels of pollution considered to be officially "safe" or at least legal. We really have no idea what the assault on our bodies by chemicals we involuntarily breathe actually can do to our health over the long term. That's why we should minimize exposure to them as much as possible. And that means limiting the chemicals' movements, not those of expectant moms.
We can't tell you how many times a resident from DFW will go on a business trip or vacation to a less-polluted place and report an almost instant shedding of the ill effects of dirty air, only to have an almost equally fast re-acquaintance with those effects once they return. Could air pollution really make that much of a difference in so little a period of time?
As it turns out, yes.
Via an new study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers found that the Chinese government's decision to close down Beijing's polluting factories and take cars off the road during the 2008 Olympics resulted in a remarkable short-term improvement in cardiovascular health. It's the first major study to look at the immediate effects of air pollution in young healthy adults.
In a synopsis published by Environmental Health News, one of the authors describes the study and its importance:
"For the 5-month study from June to November, the researchers recruited 125 resident doctors with an average age of 24 from a centrally located hospital. Half were male, and all were healthy with no history of diabetes or cardiovascular disease.
The researchers measured heart rate, blood pressure and six markers of cardiovascular diseases in blood samples before, during and after the games. The markers included C-reactive protein (CRP), fibrinogen, von Willebrand factor, soluble CD40 ligand, soluble P-selectin concentrations and white blood cell count (WBC).
Two markers associated with blood clotting significantly decreased from pre-Olympic to the during-Olympic period: P-selectin levels dropped by 34 percent and von Willebrand factor levels were reduced by 13 percent. After the games, when the pollution control measures were removed, most markers rose back to pregame levels. But two markers – P-selectin and systolic blood pressure – worsened and showed a significant increase compared to the levels during the games.
Air pollution emissions were also measured at similar times. Levels of most air pollutants during the games decreased up to 60 percent compared to their pregame levels, depending on the type of pollutants. For example PM2.5 dropped 27 percent, nitrogen dioxide 43 percent and sulphur dioxide 60 percent. After the games when pollution controls were removed, emissions rose to higher levels than were measured before the games started.
This study suggests that even young healthy people can benefit from short-term air pollution reduction and supports efforts to quantify and understand the benefits and costs of air pollution control measures."
The next time a politician complains about the cost of air pollution controls, make sure and ask them if they're for preventative heart disease treatment. When they say yes, please remind them that keeping crap out of our air that would otherwise end up in our lungs is such preventative care.