Global Trade Is a Major Cause of Death; City Living Promotes Early Dying
April 4, 2017
Nikhil Swaminathan / Grist & Seth Borenstein / Associated Press & Qiang Zhang, et al. / Nature & Florence Williams / The Guardian
Air quality and mortality are affected by local air pollution that can be fed by atmospheric transport of pollutants from distant sources. Some of the pollution in one region is due to the production of consumer goods in another. Nearly 500,000 people succumb to smog-related illness each year on the Asian continent. Meanwhile, more people than ever live in urban environments, where dirty air, noise and stress pose a deadly risk. Heart disease, lung cancer, and strokes are caused by breathing filthy air.
Global Trade Causes More Than 20 Percent of Air-Pollution Deaths
Nikhil Swaminathan / Grist
(April 3, 2017) -- A new study in the journal Nature investigated what triggers the nearly 3.5 million annual deaths worldwide stemming from airborne particulate matter. It attributed more than 750,000 of them to goods being made in one part of the world and consumed in another.
The grim statistics center on Asia, home of cheap exports and lax environmental protections. Nearly 500,000 people succumb to smog-related illness each year on the continent, including more than 200,000 in China and more than 100,000 in India. The incidence of heart disease, lung cancer, and stroke are ratcheted up by breathing filthy air.
The main culprits behind this tragic phenomenon are buyers in the West. The study links consumption in Western Europe to almost 175,000 yearly deaths abroad and consumption in the US to more than 100,000.
"It's not a local issue anymore," says study coauthor Dabo Guan, a professor of climate change economics at the University of East Anglia.
Asian health could benefit if the Trump administration is successful in reviving American manufacturing. Some of that health burden could shift to the US, which has higher air-quality standards that should result in fewer smog-related fatalities. Then again, if Trump has his way with environmental rules, all bets are off.
Dirty Air from Global Trade Kills at Home and Abroad
Seth Borenstein / Associated Press
WASHINGTON (March 29, 2017) -- A study that measures the human toll of air pollution from global manufacturing and trade shows how buying goods made far away can lead to premature deaths both there and close to home.
More than 750,000 people die prematurely from dirty air every year that is generated by making goods in one location that will be sold elsewhere, about one-fifth of the 3.45 million premature deaths from air pollution. The study says 12 percent of those deaths, about 411,000 people, are a result of air pollution that has blown across national borders.
"It's not a local issue anymore," said study co-author Dabo Guan, an economist at the University of East Anglia in England. "It requires global cooperation."
It has long been known that that the environmental burden of manufacturing often falls heaviest on countries where companies set up shop to take advantage of low labor costs and relatively loose environmental regulations. But this is the first study to bring together economic, manufacturing, trade, atmospheric and health data to calculate the number and location of premature deaths from air pollution.
It found that people in Western Europe buying goods made elsewhere were linked to 173,000 overseas air pollution deaths a year, while United States consumption was linked to just over 100,000 deaths, according to the study published in Wednesday's journal Nature.
What that looks like in China: 238,000 deaths a year associated with production of goods that are bought or consumed elsewhere. That number is 106,000 deaths in India and 129,000 deaths in the rest of Asia.
"We have a role in the quality of the air in those areas," study co-author Steven Davis, an atmospheric scientist at the University of California, Irvine, said in an interview. "We're taking advantage of our positon as consumers, distant consumers."
Still, the study says three-quarters of the 1 million air pollution deaths in China -- and the nearly half a million deaths in India -- are from production of goods that are consumed locally.
China and India also have pollution that travels elsewhere and kills between 65,000 and 75,000 people in other countries, the study said. India's migrating pollution kills more because China's pollution, which hits Japan and South Korea, often heads over the Pacific Ocean where its effects dissipate over the miles, Davis said. India's pollution heads directly to more populous neighboring countries.
The study starts by looking at the 3.45 million deaths a year that this and other studies say are triggered by tiny airborne particles often called soot or smog. About 2.5 million of those deaths are associated with making and consuming of goods, including the energy needed to produce and ship them. The rest are due to natural factors like dust and fires and other causes that can't be tracked, said study lead author Qiang Zhang, an atmospheric chemist at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
Like smoking, air pollution increases the risk of getting diseases like heart disease and stroke, said study co-author Michael Brauer, a public health professor at the University of British Columbia. Using well-established methods, researchers calculate death estimates using health statistics, pollution levels, and other factors.
Dr. Howard Frumkin, a former director of the National Center for Environmental Health at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now at the University of Washington, was not part of the study, but praised it. He said the calculations done by the study are crucial for understanding the larger problem.
"This is a moral question as much as a scientific one," Frumkin wrote in an email. "But the scientific approach here -- linking data on manufacturing and associated pollution emissions, import and export flows, pollutant movement across national boundaries, and the health impact of pollution exposure -- is exactly what's needed."
Producing more goods locally would change where deaths occur and potentially reduce overall deaths -- if local emissions rules are tighter. Bringing back manufacturing to the United States, as President Donald J. Trump and politicians from both parties want, would bring more air pollution deaths to the US, but reduce deaths worldwide because pollution laws are stricter, Davis and others said.
Production is likely to remain concentrated in Asia, however, and it will have to be up to those countries to better regulate their own industrial emissions, said Peter Adams, an engineering professor and air pollution expert at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, who wasn't part of the study. "Relying on consumer altruism," he said, won't be enough.
Transboundary Health Impacts of Transported
Global Air Pollution and International Trade
Qiang Zhang, et al. / Nature (543, 705–709)
(March 30, 2017) -- Millions of people die every year from diseases caused by exposure to outdoor air pollution. Some studies have estimated premature mortality related to local sources of air pollution, but local air quality can also be affected by atmospheric transport of pollution from distant sources.
International trade is contributing to the globalization of emission and pollution as a result of the production of goods (and their associated emissions) in one region for consumption in another region. The effects of international trade on air pollutant emissions, air quality and health have been investigated regionally, but a combined, global assessment of the health impacts related to international trade and the transport of atmospheric air pollution is lacking.
Here we combine four global models to estimate premature mortality caused by fine particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution as a result of atmospheric transport and the production and consumption of goods and services in different world regions.
We find that, of the 3.45 million premature deaths related to PM2.5 pollution in 2007 worldwide, about 12 per cent (411,100 deaths) were related to air pollutants emitted in a region of the world other than that in which the death occurred, and about 22 per cent (762,400 deaths) were associated with goods and services produced in one region for consumption in another.
For example, PM2.5 pollution produced in China in 2007 is linked to more than 64,800 premature deaths in regions other than China, including more than 3,100 premature deaths in Western Europe and the USA; on the other hand, consumption in Western Europe and the USA is linked to more than 108,600 premature deaths in China.
Our results reveal that the transboundary health impacts of PM2.5 pollution associated with international trade are greater than those associated with long-distance atmospheric pollutant transport.
Warning: Living in a City Could Seriously Damage your Health
Florence Williams / The Guardian
(March 13, 2017) -- I recently spent some time walking around Washington DC, where I live, with an aethalometer sticking out of my shirt collar. I carried the device, which measures air pollution, around with me like a pet monkey as I walked in a city park, drove on the city's circular beltway and picked up my kids from school. It was sadly eye-opening because it confirmed what I have long suspected: my city is a polluted place.
The monitor, borrowed from Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York, measures black carbon, a byproduct of car engines and other fuel-burning processes. Its name comes from the Greek word meaning "to blacken with soot". And that's exactly what happened.
The spindly machine measured high readings of 6,000 nanograms per cubic meter while I drove around, even during off-peak hours. More shockingly, I recorded equally high values just outside my daughter's school, where cars and buses idle, waiting to pick up students.
Much of the pollution there is generated by diesel fuel, which has been shown to shorten life spans around the world by causing cardiovascular and pulmonary problems. Worldwide, fine particulate matter, of which black carbon is a component, is blamed for 2.1 million premature deaths annually.
Scientists have long considered the lungs as vulnerable to air pollution. Only recently have they come to realise the role of the nose as a pathway to the brain; the extent of the nose-brain connection was only illuminated in 2003, when researchers in smog-choked Mexico City found brain lesions on stray dogs.
Unfortunately for city dwellers, the closer we live to these roads, the higher our risk of autism, stroke and cognitive decline in ageing, although the exact reasons haven't been teased out. Scientists suspect it has something to do with fine particles causing tissue inflammation and altering gene expression in the brain's immune cells.
"I hold my breath when I'm behind a diesel bus," Michelle Block, a neurobiologist who studies pollution's effects on microglial cells at Virginia Commonwealth University, told me.
Regardless of whether people know about pollution, its effects are being felt in other ways too. In one 2008 survey of 400 Londoners by economists George MacKerron and Susana Mourato at the London School of Economics, "life satisfaction" fell significantly -- half a point on an 11-point scale -- for each additional 10 micrograms per cubic metre of nitrogen dioxide pollution, also a common byproduct of diesel engines.
Because I am strangely driven to probe the unhealthy aspects of my life, I also walked around my city wearing a portable electroencephalogram (EEG) device on my head. I wanted to know how easily I could attain "alpha" brain waves (indicating a calm, focused state of mind) by walking in various parts of the city, including a park.
Research has shown that people who live in cities may suffer more psychological stress than people who live in rural areas. For a study published in Nature in 2011, Jens Pruessner and colleagues at the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim found a 21% increase in anxiety disorders, a 39% increase in mood disorders and a doubled risk of schizophrenia in city dwellers.
Urban living was linked to increased activity in the brain's amygdala -- the fear centre -- and in the perigenual anterior cingulate cortex, a key region for regulating fear and stress.
Meanwhile, a 2011 study from Portugal found that people living near industrial "grey areas" reported less optimism. This may sound trivial, but optimism is associated with healthier behaviours (such as a willingness to exercise), lower levels of fat in the blood and mental resilience, or the ability to recover from stress.
I uploaded the data from my EEG to a California-based website that read it, fed it into an algorithm, and sent me back this dejected message about my lack of alphas: "This indicates that in this state you were actively processing information and, perhaps, that you should relax more often!"
Both my local park and my house sit under the flightpath of a busy airport, and noise pollution is yet another well-proven source of stress. I decided to measure the noise. This I did in my very own backyard, using an iPhone app.
I found out that the jets flying overhead every two minutes cranked out average decibel levels between 55 and 60 but sometimes spiking much higher (60 decibels is high enough to drown out normal speech).
These are the same levels linked to stress-related disease and increased use of anti-anxiety medication in European studies. I bought noise-cancelling headphones. And I thought seriously about moving to the Rocky Mountains.
But before we all ditch our cities to camp out in a hay bale, it's worth remembering that there are some excellent ways to counter the ill effects of crowded, Euclidean, monochromatic, loud modern life. Because, let's face it, there are still some rather nice things about living in cities. And the fact is, more and more of us live in them.
Globally, as of 2008, more people live in cities than outside them. By 2050, another two billion people will pile in, leading one US anthropologist, Jason Vargo, to suggest a new name for our species: Metro sapiens. Learning to make cities livable will be one of the greatest public health challenges of this century.
One clear step is the need to tackle air pollution. Health experts in the UK recently suggested parents cover their babies' prams during morning rush hour. A better solution would be to regulate the polluters. Paris, Madrid, Athens and Mexico City plan to ban diesel vehicles from city centres within the next 10 years.
Another antidote to noise, particulates and greyness is both delightful and affordable: trees. For humans, urban trees provide not just aesthetic pleasure but health benefits. Trees soak up air pollution, create cooling and provide a brain-tingling array of colours, textures and scents. The birds they shelter provide us with birdsong, which in turn is linked to feelings of wellbeing.
Consider the example of Toronto, Canada. The city values its 10m trees at C$7bn (£4.3bn). A 2015 study there showed the higher a neighbourhood's tree density, the lower the incidence of heart and metabolic disease, and estimated that the health boost to those living on blocks with 11 more trees than average was equivalent to a C$20,000 gain in median income.
I hope to become so lucky, since Washington DC and partner nonprofits have been trying to plant at least 8,600 trees per year in an effort to increase the street canopy to 40% in the next two decades. New York City recently completed a campaign to plant a million trees, and Los Angeles, Shanghai, Denver and Dubai are in the middle of similar projects.
I envision soon nestling under a sprawling oak and removing all of my monitoring devices. It will just be me and the tree, and I won't need a machine to tell me I feel better.
Florence Williams' The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Creative was published by WW Norton UK at the end of March 2017.
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