TIME climate change

Here’s How Much Money Climate Action Could Save Us

Inside The American Electric Power Co. Coal-Fired Power Plant
Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Obama administration sees cost savings, health benefits from aggressive climate policies

If the United States doesn’t mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution will worsen, labor hours will decrease, and crop prices will be higher, a new report from the EPA warns.

The comprehensive survey estimates the potential economic damage from global warming, tallying up billions of dollars that could be saved through aggressive climate policies.

By surveying six sectors — health, infrastructure, electricity, water resources, agriculture and forestry, and ecosystems — the EPA report found that global warming’s associated extreme temperatures and increased incidence of natural disasters could lead to a variety of unforeseen consequences. In the health sector, the EPA estimated that more than 69,000 lives could be at risk by 2100 due to worsening air quality and extreme temperatures. Plus, more than 1.2 billion labor hours could be lost in the same period due to extreme temperatures.

The report also forecasted that mitigation efforts taken now could prevent the loss of more than a third of the U.S. oyster and scallop supplies and more than a quarter of the clam supply by 2100. The damage to resulting from water shortages could range as high as $180 billion.

The EPA report comes at a time when House Republicans are preparing to vote this week to weaken or kill the Obama administration’s limits on power plant emissions, The Hill reports.

TIME Research

Air Pollution Linked to Increased Mortality Even Below EPA Limits: Study

Smoke is released into the sky at an oil refinery in Wilmington
Bret Hartman—Reuters Smoke is released into the sky at a refinery in Wilmington, Calif., on March 24, 2012

You knew air pollution was unhealthy, but you didn't know it was this unhealthy

That death rates among people over 65 are higher in zip codes with more fine-particulate air pollution, as a new study from Harvard School of Public Health suggests, may not come as a surprise. But that harmful effects from that pollution were observed in areas with less than a third of the current Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standard may be both startling, and a concern, for many.

The study, which was published online in Environmental Health Perspectives on June 3, used satellite data to measure temperature and particle levels in every zip code in New England, Science Daily reports. This technique allowed researchers to include data even from areas far from pre-existing monitoring stations and to look both at short-term and annual average exposure. That information was then cross-referenced with health data from all New England Medicare patients — some 2.4 million people — between 2003 and 2008.

The results indicate that exposure to air pollution on both the short- and long-term was significantly associated with higher death rates even in zip codes where measurements fell below EPA standards, a trend suggesting that, as with toxins such as lead, there may be no safe level of exposure.

“Most of the country is either meeting the EPA standards now, or is expected to meet them in a few years as new power plant controls kick in,” said senior author Joel Schwartz, professor of environmental epidemiology at Harvard. “This study shows that it is not enough. We need to go after coal plants that still aren’t using scrubbers to clean their emissions, as well as other sources of particles like traffic and wood smoke.”

[Science Daily]

TIME Research

Study Finds Possible Association Between Autism and Air Pollution

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Getty Images

Research suggests that early exposure to air pollution may have wide-ranging negative effects

A new study from the University of Pittsburgh suggests that exposure to fine particulate air pollution from pregnancy up and through the first two years of childhood may be linked with developing autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health conducted “a population-based, case-control study” of families living in southwestern Pennsylvania, which included children with and without ASD, reports Science Daily.

The research team was then able to estimate an individual’s exposure to specific categories of air pollution based on where their mothers lived before, during and after pregnancy.

“There is increasing and compelling evidence that points to associations between Pittsburgh’s poor air quality and health problems, especially those affecting our children and including issues such as autism spectrum disorder and asthma,” said Grant Oliphant, president of the Heinz Endowments, which funded the research project.

However, the members of the study stressed that their findings “reflect an association” but does not ultimately prove causality.

[Science Daily]

TIME China

China Ties Officials’ Promotions to Saving the Environment

People do morning exercises on a polluted day in Jiaozuo
China Daily/Reuters People do morning exercises on a polluted day in Jiaozuo, Henan province, China, on March 16, 2015

No longer is rampant growth the Communist Party's overriding priority

For decades, Chinese officials’ job prospects have depended on one factor above all others: economic growth. The incentive structure seemed to make sense given that China has enjoyed one of the greatest economic expansions in human history. But on May 5, new Chinese regulations added another inducement to the mix: environmental protection. Officials will be held accountable for the air, water and soil in areas under their control. Should they fail an environmental responsibility audit, promotions will be nixed.

It’s no secret that China’s breakneck growth has devastated the country’s environment. Even by the government’s own reckoning — which some consider an underestimation of the problem — only eight of 74 Chinese cities met national standards for clean air last year, according to state newswire Xinhua. Sixty percent of ground water in one official survey was deemed “bad” or “very bad,” reported Xinhua.

Beijing is now talking tough and last year declared a “war against pollution.” A revised environmental law, which took effect on Jan. 1, promises to target polluters and officials who fake environmental data. Last month, construction on a controversial $3.75 billion dam was blocked. During his annual address in March, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang vowed “a firm and unrelenting approach to ensure blue skies, clear waters, and sustainable development.”

According to Xinhua, the government guidelines released on May 5 state that “by 2020, China aims to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 40% to 45% from the 2005 level, and increase the share of nonfossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 15%.”

Earlier this year, a documentary made by former state TV journalist Chai Jing showed how state-owned industries were complicit in degrading China’s environment. The online video racked up more than 200 million views, and the country’s new Environment Minister Chen Jining praised China’s version of Rachel Carson. But a few days later, the video was pulled from the Chinese digital space.

Ma Jun, a Chinese environmentalist and former journalist, wrote about Chai for this year’s TIME 100 list of the most influential people in the world. (Ma is also a former TIME 100 honoree.) Reacting to the latest antipollution guidelines, Ma wrote on his microblog: “In the future, officials will feel more pressure to protect the environment. But how to assess the officials’ efforts to protect the environment is still a pivotal issue.”

Indeed, China’s Environment Minister has described the need for the country’s environmental legislation to have “steel teeth,” rather than acting as a “paper tiger.” So will the latest guidelines, which were formulated by China’s Cabinet, be enforced? Even the Xinhua article about the new policies ended with a note of caution, quoting a government-affiliated academic:

“The key for the next step is whether we can seriously implement the guideline,” noted Wang Yi, head of the Institute of Policy and Management under the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

With reporting by Gu Yongqiang / Beijing

TIME Exercise/Fitness

This Study Busts Your Work Out Excuse

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Brent Winebrenner—Getty Images/Lonely Planet Images

Air quality may not be the best in cities, but the benefits of physical activity can outweigh the harms of breathing in pollutants

Exercising outdoors is certainly preferable to being cooped up in a stuffy gym, but if you live in an urban area, the pollution from cars and buses may give you pause. It shouldn’t. Zorana Andersen from the center for epidemiology and screening at the University of Copenhagen and her colleagues report in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives that being active trumps some of the negative health effects that breathing in polluted air might have.

MORE: Pollution: Dangerous to Joggers

In a study involving 52,061 people who were followed for around 13 years, Andersen found that those who were more active were less likely to die during the study than those who were more sedentary, regardless of the pollutant levels where they lived. The researchers asked the participants to detail their physical activities, including their leisure sports, how much they walked, whether they biked or walked to work, and whether they spent time gardening. They compared these responses to the levels of nitrogen dioxide near their homes; NO2 is a gas produced from the burning of fossil fuels in cars, and is an ingredient for other harmful pollutants such as ozone and particulate matter, which can cause respiratory illnesses. Previous studies found that walking along a busy London street, for example, caused a drop in lung function and that cycling or running near high traffic roadways also compromised people’s respiratory functions slightly.

In Andersen’s study, however, people who participated in sports showed a 22% lower risk of dying from any cause during the 13-year followup, while those who cycled regularly showed a 17% lower risk and people who spent time gardening showed a 16% lower risk compared to those who didn’t do either of those activities — and regardless of the pollution levels where they lived.

MORE: Ozone Can Harm the Heart in as Little as Two Hours

“We found an even more positive message around physical activity than we even hoped for,” says Andersen. “Physiologically it’s plausible that you inhale more particles [of pollution] when you exercise in polluted areas, and we thought maybe the accumulated lifetime effect of this would reduce the benefit of exercise. But we don’t see that.”

Essentially, the benefits of being active were strong enough to overcome some of the negative effects of breathing in pollutants. That makes sense, she says, because even if people aren’t exercising to avoid inhaling pollutants, they are still exposed to them, and Andersen’s study shows that even if exercises might be exposed to slightly higher levels of compounds like NO2, that still doesn’t negate the positive effects of physical activity on their heart, blood sugar levels and more. In fact, for specific conditions, the benefits of exercising remained quite high; active people even in highly polluted areas had a 66% lower chance of dying early from diabetes compared to those who didn’t exercise.

She notes, however, that some cities may have significantly higher pollution levels than Copenhagen, where the participants lived, and it’s not clear yet how greater concentrations can affect the exercise-pollution-mortality balance. So if you have a choice for working out, biking or walking in a less polluted area, however, such as a park or a quieter side street, that might be a good idea. But don’t worry too much if you don’t. “Being active prolongs life more than staying away from air pollution,” says Andersen. “So pollution shouldn’t be a barrier to exercise.”

TIME Environment

Pollutants Created by Climate Change Are Making Airborne Allergens More Potent

Smog arrives at the banks of Songhua River on January 22, 2015 in Jilin, Jilin province of China.
ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images Smog arrives at the banks of Songhua River on Jan. 22, 2015, in Jilin, China

It could explain why more people are suffering from year to year

If you think your seasonal sneezing, wheezing and sniffling is getting worse, you aren’t simply imagining it.

Currently, some 50 million or so Americans suffer from nasal allergies, but the number is going up, and researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Germany say a pair of pollutants linked to climate change could be to blame. That’s according to a report in Science Daily.

The two gases are nitrogen dioxide and ground-level ozone, which appear to set off chemical changes in some airborne allergens, increasing their potency.

“Scientists have long suspected that air pollution and climate change are involved in the increasing prevalence of allergies worldwide,” said the institute’s Ulrich Pöschl. “Our research is just a starting point, but it does begin to suggest how chemical modifications in allergenic proteins occur and how they may affect allergenicity.”

Pöschl’s team found that ozone (a major component of smog) oxidizes an amino acid that sets off chemical reactions that ultimately alter an allergenic protein’s structure. Meanwhile, nitrogen dioxide (found in car exhausts) appears to alter the separation and binding capabilities of certain allergens.

Researchers believe that together, the two gases make allergens more likely to trigger the body’s immune response, especially in wet, humid and smoggy conditions.

The team hopes to identify other allergenic proteins that are modified in the environment and examine how these affect the human immune system.

[Science Daily]

TIME europe

Huge Numbers of Europeans Will Die From Air Pollution in the Next 20 Years

Eiffel Tower in a thick smog in Paris, France on January 6, 2015.
Apaydin Alain—Sipa USA/AP Eiffel Tower in a thick smog in Paris, France on January 6, 2015.

Europe is failing on a range of environmental indicators from air to water and biodiversity

Hundreds of thousands of people in the E.U. — perhaps millions, if present trends continue — will suffer premature death in the next two decades because of toxic air, a new report says.

Tuesday’s State of the Environment Report for 2015, from the European Environment Agency (EEA) blames governments for inaction and says that in 2011 alone — the most recent year for which there is a reliable tally — over 400,000 Europeans died prematurely from air pollution.

Europe’s environmental performance also lags behind in areas like urbanization, biodiversity loss, intensive farming and maintenance of inland freshwater systems, the Guardian reports.

“Our analysis shows that European policies have successfully tackled many environmental challenges over the years. But it also shows that we continue to harm the natural systems that sustain our prosperity,” EEA’s executive director Hans Bruyninckx told the Guardian.

[The Guardian]

TIME China

Watch This Haunting Seven-Minute Film About China’s Insane Air Pollution

It's haunting and eerily beautiful

Greenpeace East Asia today released a seven-minute film by director Jia Zhangke about China’s toxic air. The impressionistic piece, Smog Journeys, follows two families — one rural, one urban — as they live, play, and work in the country’s polluted northeast.

“When it comes to smog, no matter what jobs we do, it is still a problem we all face,” says Jia in an interview released online.

Jia is one of China’s most renowned filmmakers. His work is famously gritty, filled with tales of alienation and strife, and shot in shades of brown and gray. His last feature, A Touch of Sin (2013), was a critical hit abroad, but was considered too politically sensitive to be shown on the Chinese mainland.

TIME Developmental Disorders

ADHD Linked to the Air Pregnant Women Breathe

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Alan Hicks—Getty Images Heavy traffic can pollute the air with compounds that can contribute to ADHD

Everything an expectant mother does can have an impact on her baby’s development—including the air she breathes

Research has long connected what a mom-to-be eats and drinks to the health of her baby, and recent studies have even linked behavioral experiences such as stress, sleep and mood to the growing fetus’s development.

Now, scientists reporting in the journal PLOS ONE have pinpointed one exposure that could contribute to a baby’s higher risk of developing attention deficit hyperactivity disorders (ADHD), which the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control show affects around 11% of children aged four to 17 years.

MORE: Early Exposure to Air Pollution Tied to Higher Risk of Hyperactivity in Children

Frederica Perera, director of the center for environmental health sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, and her colleagues focused in on how the pollutants in the air that pregnant women breathe can affect their babies’ cognitive development. Perera previously found a correlation between polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) emitted by burning fossil fuels (such as in car exhaust and some forms of residential heating) to developmental delays by age three, reduced IQ in kindergartners and attentional problems by age six. So the team looked specifically at symptoms associated with concentration and evaluated how these effects connected to PAHs might be contributing to ADHD.

The scientists measured the level of PAHs in both the cord blood retrieved when the mothers gave birth and the mothers’ blood following delivery. They also collected urine samples from the children at age three or five years and analyzed them for PAH levels. The children born to mothers with higher levels of PAH during pregnancy had five-fold increased odds of showing symptoms of ADHD than those who were born to mothers with lower levels. The effect remained strong even after the researchers adjusted for the babies’ exposure to air pollution and smoking after birth.

“This is a new finding, and if the PAHs are identified as a contributor to ADHD, that opens up new avenues for preventing ADHD,” says Perera.

MORE: Study Links Exposure to Pollution with Lower IQ

PAHs, says Perera, circulate in the body for a long time, so even brief exposures could contribute to changes in the body. And each person processes the chemicals differently. Some may be more prone to breaking down the compounds into their potentially toxic elements, while others are less affected by the exposure.

While mothers may not be able to control some exposures, such as those from traffic and heating sources, there are some ways that expectant women can reduce their risk. Pushing local legislators to adopt clean air laws is one way to improve air quality, and on a more personal level, families can make sure that cooking areas have proper ventilation, avoid burning candles and incense and other sources of PAHs, and most importantly, ensure that they aren’t exposed to tobacco smoke. “Air quality is a policy problem, but individuals can be empowered to take steps,” Perera says.

MORE: Mom’s Exposure to Air Pollution Can Increase Kids’ Behavior Problems

Women who are pregnant can also eat more antioxidants from sources like fresh fruits and vegetables, since these can counteract some of the oxidative damage that PAHs wreak on fetal cells.

Perera stresses that limiting exposure to PAHs isn’t the only answer to reducing the increasing rate of ADHD in the country. Genetic and other environmental factors all contribute to the disorder, but identifying as many potential factors as possible could start to reduce the effect that the chemicals have not just on mothers, but on their developing babies as well.

TIME Environment

See the Worst Place to Breathe in America

It's not Los Angeles

If you think about smog, you’re probably picturing a major city like Los Angeles, where in the 1960s and ’70s the air was so bad that smog alerts telling people to avoid outdoor activity were regular occurrences. The air has improved in L.A. and other big cities in recent years, thanks to cleaner cars and air-pollution regulation.

But the real capital of air pollution in the U.S. is a farming city that sits to the northwest of L.A.: Bakersfield.

Bakersfield is in the San Joaquin Valley, a major agricultural area that stretches through much of California. The San Joaquin Valley contains some of the richest, most productive agricultural land in the country. But its geography — the valley is surrounded on all sides by mountains — creates a bowl that traps air pollution. Levels of soot and ozone — which in warm weather, which the valley has much of the year, can create smog — are some of the highest in the country. And while air in much of the U.S. has improved, in Bakersfield and other towns in the southern San Joaquin Valley, the air quality is as bad as ever — if not worse.

How bad? School officials in Bakersfield have used colored flags to indicate air quality: green for good, yellow for moderate, orange for unhealthy for sensitive groups and red for unhealthy for all groups. But this winter, the air became so bad that officials had to use a new color on the worst days: purple, even worse than red. Because of high levels of air pollution, asthma is prominent throughout the region, and the bad air can also raise levels of respiratory and cardiovascular disease.

Photographer Lexey Swall grew up in Bakersfield, and in this collection of photographs, she shows the human cost of living in one of the most polluted cities in the country. For Bakersfield residents, there’s simply no room to breathe.

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