Monday May 21, 2018

Scientists may have found an upside to Air Pollution: Study

two pollutants coming out of the smokestacks at coal-fired power plants interact to make a kind of fertilizer for ocean-dwelling plankton

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FILE - Smoke billows from chimneys of the cooling towers of a coal-fired power plant in Dadong, Shanxi province, China. VOA
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US, Mar 3, 2017: Scientists may have found an upside to air pollution.

A new study found that two pollutants coming out of the smokestacks at coal-fired power plants interact to make a kind of fertilizer for ocean-dwelling plankton. That may help increase how much planet-warming carbon dioxide the plankton absorb.

The authors didn’t study the size of the fertilizer effect. But given the amount of coal burning going on, especially in Asia, they say it could be modest but significant.

While coal pollution is a major contributor to climate change and harms human health, “in this case it is doing us a good thing,” said University of Birmingham environmental scientist Zongbo Shi, senior author of the study.

“Earth systems are sometimes very complicated,” he added. “They are doing things that we don’t really expect.”

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Sulfate coating

Iron is essential for plant growth. But the mineral is often in short supply in ocean ecosystems.

Burning coal releases iron particles. Some estimates say the amount of iron falling into the oceans may have doubled or tripled since the Industrial Revolution.

But when that iron leaves the smokestack, it is locked away in a chemical form that’s not useful to plants.

Shi and colleagues found that as airborne particles drift along with other smokestack pollutants, they acquire a coating of sulfate, a chemical responsible for acid rain. That acidic coating triggers a reaction that generates iron sulfate, a soluble form of the mineral that plants can use.

The research was published in the journal Science Advances.

FILE - Power plant chimneys stand behind a coal-burning neighborhood covered in a thick haze on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, Jan. 19, 2017.
FILE – Power plant chimneys stand behind a coal-burning neighborhood covered in a thick haze on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, Jan. 19, 2017. VOA

Amount of absorption

The study “provides a demonstration of something that we thought was occurring, but couldn’t necessarily demonstrate,” said University of California-Davis engineering professor Chris Cappa, who was not involved with the research. But it’s still not clear how much is occurring, he said.

Burning less coal will still mean fewer greenhouse gas emissions. But Shi said the reduction might be less than anticipated.

“If we control air pollution, then all this potential uptake of carbon dioxide by the ocean will become less and less,” he said. “Then we will have to cut more and more greenhouse gas emissions.”

But outside experts cautioned that it would take more work to figure out what effect these air pollution particles actually have on how much carbon dioxide plankton absorbs.

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‘Nuanced’ relationship

“The link between iron fertilization and carbon dioxide storage is more nuanced,” said marine chemist Scott Doney at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. “There was a period of time when people talked about deliberately fertilizing the ocean with iron as a route to carbon storage. And it turns out not to be so simple.”

Before people get too excited about the benefits of air pollution, they should know this: The same form of iron that plants find useful also triggers damaging chemical reactions in human lungs, Shi said. That may be responsible for some of air pollution’s impact on health.

“It is not a simple good or bad,” he said. (VOA)

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Air Pollution: WHO Releases List of The Best And Worst Cities

90% of world's population breathes badly polluted air: WHO

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Air Pollution
WHO releases a list of most and least polluted cities. Pixabay

Nine out of every 10 people on the planet breathe air that contains high levels of pollutants and kills seven million people each year, according to a new World Health Organization (WHO) study released on Wednesday.

The study is an analysis of what the WHO says is the world’s most comprehensive database on ambient air pollution. The organisation collected the data from more than 4,300 cities and 108 countries, reports CNN.

People in Asia and Africa face the biggest problems, according to the study.

More than 90 per cent of air pollution-related deaths happen there, but cities in the Americas, Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean also have air pollution levels that are beyond what the WHO considers healthy.

The new WHO data show that US cities on the more polluted side of the list include Los Angeles, Bakersfield and Fresno, California; Indianapolis; and the Elkhart-Goshen area of Indiana.

Air Pollution.
Air Pollution. Pixabay

Peshawar and Rawalpindi in Pakistan, have some of the highest particulate air pollution levels in the database. Varanasi and Kanpur in India; Cairo; and Al Jubail, Saudi Arabia, also show higher levels.

“I’m afraid what is dramatic is that air pollution levels still remain at dangerously high levels in many parts of the world,” CNN quoted Maria Neira, director of the WHO’s Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health, as saying.

“No doubt that air pollution represents today not only the biggest environmental risk for health, but I will clearly say that this is a major, major challenge for public health at the moment and probably one of the biggest ones we are contemplating.”

Particle pollution, a mix of solid and liquid droplets in the air, can get sucked into and embedded deep in your lungs when you breathe. That can lead to health conditions including asthma, lung cancer, heart disease, stroke and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), according to the study.

Also Read: Air Pollution And Its Effects On Our Health

These outdoor particulates — including sulphate, nitrates and black carbon — are largely created by car and truck traffic, manufacturing, power plants and farming. In total, air pollution caused about 4.2 million deaths in 2016, it added.

“Many of the world’s megacities exceed WHO’s guideline levels for air quality by more than five times, representing a major risk to people’s health,” Neira said. This is “a very dramatic problem that we are facing now”.

Cleaner air accounts for in cities like like Wenden, Arizona (population 2,882), or Cheyenne, Wyoming (population 64,019).

The Eureka-Arcata-Fortuna area of California; Battlement Mesa, Colorado; Wasilla, Alaska; Gillette, Wyoming; and Kapaa, Hawaii, are all on the cleaner-air list.

One of the bigger US cities with cleaner air is Honolulu, according to the WHO data.  (IANS)