Which Country has the Worst Air Pollution in the World?

Before I get into anything, this is a first in a series of three articles I am going to be releasing. Instead of my monthly release rate, I am going to be releasing them one each week. If you are traveling to or live in a polluted environment, I highly suggest you subscribe to the blog or do it as an RSS feed.

Now to the article!

If you guessed China, you guessed wrong. Did you get it wrong? If you say you didn't, I am going to call you a liar. Every person I know, when asked which country in the world has the worst air pollution, answered China. This includes experts on China, experts on air pollution, and experts on countries that are more polluted than china.

Also, the number of people that die per year from air pollution is staggering, more on that after the math.

China isn't even close to being the country with the most fouled air. That distinction belongs to India, by a huge margin.

Okay, well, let's delve further into it. Of the top 20 most polluted cities in the world, how many would you guess are in China? Okay, that was a trick question. China doesn't have any of the top 20 most polluted cities in the world. And India holds the distinction of having at least 10 of them.

A gate in India that can't be seen through air pollution.

Before getting to the science grit, one more important thing. Owing entirely to city air pollution in India, at least one study shows that Indian citizens living in cities have 30% less lung capacity than Europeans living in cities. So, pretty much, pollution makes it so

Okay, let's back up and discuss air pollution a bit.

What is Air Pollution? (This is the technical part of the post)

In this above mentioned study, air pollution is strictly PM2.5. Why is that? Because PM2.5 is particulates smaller than 2.5 microns, roughly 1/30th the width of human hair. They are small enough that they penetrate deep into the lungs, where they cause permanent damage and can lead to cancer. PM2.5 is produced by powerplants (mostly coal-fired) and any combustion-based motor vehicle. The EPA has a great guideline for PM2.5 if you want to read more.

There are other pollutants that everyone seems to ignore. Back in the day, you heard a lot about acid rain. Acid rain is caused by SO_2 and NO_2 . Combusting anything creates NO, cause there is so much N_2 in the air (78% of the stuff we breath is N_2 ) that some of it combines with oxygen during combustion, creating NO. NO reacts with O_2 to produce NO2 and O-, the latter of which produces ground-level ozone (more on that soon). Let's look at what happens to SO_2 and NO_2 in air:

2SO_2 + 2H_2O + O_2 \rightarrow 2H_2SO_4

So that's sulphuric acid.

2NO_2 + H_2O \rightarrow HNO_2 + HNO_3

And that is nitrous and nitric acid. Another fun reaction is:

NO + VOC + sunlight \rightarrow O_3

VOCs are Volatile Organic Carbons. It pretty much means organic matter in the air. It comes from plants. O_3 , or ozone, is bad for people and plants at ground level.

So let's review what happens here. Power plants burn fossil fuels, they produce PM2.5 which causes cancer, coal-fired powerplants produce SO_2 which becomes acid in your lungs, and all combustion plants produce NO_2 which also becomes acid in your lungs. PM2.5 is the worst, but the other pollutants are also bad. Burning coal causes the most of all of these pollutants. Lower grade coal, the stuff burned more often in China and India (the US has high grade coal), has less energy relative to pollutants, so it makes more pollution.

Now, exactly how bad are ozone, NOx ( NO_2 ) and SOx ( SO_2 )? They are all similar, so lets just look at SOx health effects according to the EPA. In short, exercising in an environment with this stuff is bad for you, and sends people to the emergency room. In the worst case scenario, it exacerbates or triggers asthma, heart attacks, and aneurysms, killing people nearly instantly. Long term exposure increases asthma and other health hazards. Now keep in mind that this stuff is considered less of a problem than PM2.5.

Back to the Qualitative

Okay, now that we know what the stuff is and what it does, let's get to some specific numbers. The World Health Organization indicates that air pollution is "single biggest environmental health risk in the world" the largest health hazard in the world, killing 7 million people per year.

What's the best way to deal with this stuff? Staying indoors helps a lot. Your house acts as a good barrier against it. Having a filter also helps. If you live in China or India, build one of these at your home. The filter will stop working eventually, so it will have replacement costs, but you can probably get clean air for around $100 per year for a single room in your house. Now keep in mind, this is a HEPA filter, which filters out only particles. Good luck with that SOx, NOx, and ozone. The guy who stapled together the filter and the fan states that it's the only thing you need for clean air in his blog. Clearly the PhD he is learning in psychology does not qualify him to know a lot about air quality. It doesn't disqualify him from knowing about it, but being completely unaware of the chemicals I described above does.

HEPA + fan. Good for PM2.5, useless vs. ozone, SOx, and NOx.

 

In other words, this filter will work inside, but you are still going to get bad chemicals living in your lungs. If you want to filter more, be prepared to shell out thousands of USD. Also, if you plan on going outside, or you want to exercise, if you work outside, you're pretty well screwed. There are a few masks that work, but all have their flaws or are expensive. More on this later, we've hit 1000 words and it's time to go.

Before we let me repeat one thing. If you are in a polluted area: Do. Not. Exercise. Anywhere. That. Isn't. Filtered. And no mask on the market filters out SOx, NOx, and Ozone.

Thanks for reading!

- Jason Munster

Deadhorse 4 - The end.

*Note: I wrote most of this during the 4th week in Deadhorse. It is pretty embarrassing, but I will publish it unedited. 600 straight hours of sunlight and working every day makes your brain think you are on the longest unending day ever, and it punishes you.

(2017 edit: This post is not embarrassing at all. Depression from difficult work settings is a real thing.)

My best shot from Prudhoe Bay

My best shot from Prudhoe Bay. Click for full image.

Good news! With my return to Harvard, this will be the last bullshit post for a while. Climate science posts will shortly resume, after a brief break!

Deadhorse is Behind Us (better than the original section title "Deadhorse is in our Rear")

We have ended our month in Deadhorse, Prudhoe Bay, AK. I am now home. I am suffering from some pretty severe culture shock, cause I've been thrown back into my job in a Harvard undergrad dorm. So I am going from hanging out with 6 surly scientists with declining hygiene habits to 400 energetic Harvard undergrads putting their best forth for the new schoolyear.

Week 4

The airplane was fixed hours after my last post. The instrument worked on all fronts. We are collaborating with the Navy on some research up here, and we will continue to collaborate with them back in lab in Cambridge.

Last night we were talking about various small airlines that used to kick ass. Apparently Midwest would serve you steak and beer on flights. We would always ask what happened to each airline after we heard how great it was. Apparently Midwest was bought by Northwest.

One of the group (left nameless cause HR things) mentioned that there had even once been a Hooters airline. When we asked him what became of the airline, he deadpanned, "It went tits up."

Yep, pretty much par for the course for our conversations up here.

 

Sunset over the horizon, taken in the last days when the sun finally got tired of being up all the time

Sunset over the horizon, taken in the last days when the sun finally got tired of being up all the time

 

Deployments are Weird Anywhere

Our airplane mechanic was deployed in Afghanistan for 3 months as an airplane mechanic, and also in several other places. By the middle of the 3rd week, everyone was making awful jokes. At the end of the 4th week, no one was talking to anyone else. We mostly just sat silently and did our work. "What happened?" we would say. "Did we just run out of awful jokes?" Naw, says our mechanic. "I've been on several field deployments and noticed a cycle. At first you are excited, cause you get to see a new place and the pace of everything is changed. Eventually you fall into a groove and start making jokes with everyone. Then everything is all the same, and you sort of drift into depression."

Yeah, that happened.

Days before this discussion, we had already banned all movies that didn't have happy endings. Depressing or down-beat songs were all vetoed. We only wanted to watch action movies and comedies. It's strange how off a weird place can make you after only 4 weeks.

Home!

As the only young unmarried person on this trip, I think I missed Boston more than everyone else. Boston is fucking awesome in the summer if you are single. Deadhorse is not.

The Aftermath

I wrote this section after a week at home, so I am more sane again.

When I first got back, I was really awkward. Sometimes I would be listening to conversations, and want to join in, and have things to say, but I couldn't figure out when there was about to be a break in the conversation. And then I was so focused on trying to find that break that I forgot what I was going to contribute. Other times I just said awkward semi-related things. I kinda just sat around listening to conversations and trying to figure out how it worked while everyone wondered why I was creepily sitting in the corner listening to their conversation.

So pretty much I got to be an introvert for a day.

We managed to measure via an aircraft whether the ground is uptaking or emitting CO2 and methane. We have to crunch the numbers to see what is happening where. This is pretty significant. It will definitely add some serious weapons to the climate change observation arsenal.

We will be upgrading the laser system on the CO2 instrument, and the detector on both methane instruments. Claire and I have enough data to each get a PhD even if we don't get funded for field work next year.

On that note, there is a good chance we will get funded for field work next year. We will have two 4-week stints in the field each. Hopefully we are better prepared for it this time.

Yay! We are home!

Mather

This week was advising week in Mather. We resident tutors directly advise sophomores. It is a long, stressful week. It's over with, and I finally feel like I can take a day off after about 3 months of no real rest. So I am gonna help a friend move. And then go kayaking. Sunday is more sophomore advising stuff, pretty much all day.

Classes

I am taking an advanced statistics course and Mandarin.

Future Posts

I will be getting back to real posts after this one.

Research Updates, Plus, It's not gay if it's week 3

Chris: "Jason, did you change the names on your blog to protect the innocent?"

Jason: "There are no innocent in Deadhorse. Only Victims."

Rawhide! Probably cause when it is 70 below zero, your ass gets chapped.

Read the name of the outhouse.

You might want to skip down to the funny stories at the bottom if you don't give a crap about research.

 

Our plane

Our plane broke. There was damage to the propeller. It looks like we are losing 4 days of potential research because of that. It kinda sucks, cause we need that time to get more data. We should be back up on Sunday. But it is getting cold, and the ground is freezing. This means the ground will stop emitting stuff, and we pack up and head home.

Bernie was getting too close to the moose.

The airplane threw part of the propeller. Look at the topmost tip

The weather here is not friendly for flying an airplane 30 feet off the ground. There is always fog in the morning. We get out in some afternoons. There is a lot of time tweaking instruments.

For hot weather, like VA, we have a radiator with a cooling loop on a pump. We have a weight-limit issue on the airplane. We want to have two pumps, but we need that radiator to keep the pump cool. Since it is cold here, we took off the radiator and use ambient air to cool the pump. So we gained 80 lbs. of weight capacity, and installed the 2nd pump. Now we can do pressure control on both our flux cells independently, greatly increasing the precision, accuracy, and speed of our data.

I used to call the instrument the Carbon Centipede cause the outlet of each pump was tied to the inlet of the next one.

We went from 3 instruments and one pump to 3 instruments and two pumps.

The Good News

Our instrument is kicking ass. The CO2 detection axis is behaving nicely. It shows consistent performance over a wide range of temperatures. Most of the time, the thing samples ambient air from the front of the plane. Every 20 minutes we shut down this flow and begin with a calibration gas that we carry onboard. The instrument is rock-solid and gives the same answer from the cal gas throughout the flight.

(2017 update: The instrument did not behave as nicely as we thought, with some pretty serious temperature regulation issues).

What's special about this? It is a brand new instrument. It is one of the only CO2 instruments in the world that flushes and refreshes the air samples in it 30 times per second. It is precise to nearly 0.5 parts per million (1-σ, 1 second). That means if it samples two million particles in one second, it counts the number of CO2 particles pretty much exactly. It pretty much kicks ass.

Building in the Field

Our methane instrument got a steroid treatment, thanks to Mark Witinski at EOS Photonics (they are hiring infrared laser engineers and semiconductor physicists, in case you are wondering).

A week before departing, Mark let us burrow a fancy piece of equipment that he thought might be better than ours. It was about 10x better. Which is sufficient to make our methane instrument hands-down the best methane spectroscopy instrument. So of course we needed to re-design the entire detector side of the instrument, in the field, and then get parts machined and shipped, then assemble it here. There were a few errors, so we had to file, chip, and cut at the metal to make everything fit. But we built fully a third of an instrument in the field. Now we have so much signal that we literally need to attenuate it to record it. Luckily the noise and signal are attenuated by the same amount. So we just got a 10x reduction in noise. Thanks, Mark!

It's Getting Hot in Here

It's sometimes near freezing when the plane flies.

Wait, it's always near freezing when the plane flies. It's fucking cold up here.

Somehow two of our three lasers keep overheating anyways. You might guess that lasers have a tendency to do that. We have augmented both systems by doubling their cooling capacities. Also, all our systems have really badass wrapping of flame-proof Nomex (worn by fire-fighters and also our instruments) clad in a type of tape call Kapton (stable to 400C, or 752 degrees fahrenheit. Note that paper does not burn this hot). It takes a lot of cutting and measuring and such to makes these wrapping. We call them clothes, cause you have to cut holes for all the cables. Kinda like arm sleeves.

Anyways, it was too hot in their, so they took off all their clothes (heh, sorry.)

Research, Summing it Up

We have a tower set up to measure methane and CO2 emissions. Where it is measuring is emitting 10x the methane of a marsh in Virginia, and 25% more than has ever been measured from a tower in the Arctic. NOAA set up and manages this tower. These tower measurements are standard and considered reliable.

Our instruments are kicking butt. We are going to compare our airplane flux measurements to the tower measurements. We anticipate that they will agree. If they do, then our airplane flux measurements of methane works. Did I mention that our methane instrument has a precision of about 4 parts per billion? Airplane flux measurements will make it so we can measure a larger area of the Arctic and find out what the region is doing.

Now we only need the weather to cooperate.

It's Not Gay if it's Week 3

"It's not gay if it's week 3." -Everyone in Deadhorse.

Week 3 has come and gone with no major incidents except for everyone deciding that I am a giant teddy bear.

Some funny things:

We were watching Hercules in New York. For some reason around then I had referred to Chris as Testosterone. Claire decided after watching Hercules that we should instead give Chris the nickname of Testicles, pronounced like Hercules (testi-cleez). We were sober at the time (Remember, no drinking at MagTec).

"Jason, your blog has really gone downhill." -Testicles (remember to pronounce it right!)

In another event, we have plumbing to do as part of our research. We move lots of air through our instrument to measure the methane and CO2. So we plumb lines together to pull the air through. At one point, I needed to connect two tubes together. They were both tubes with a 1" inner diameter. The connector is called a quick-flange to nipple connector. Yep, the thing you put in a tube to connect it to other things is called a nipple. Stay with me here. Anyways, we were missing 2 of them. I was looking all over for them. Finally, I spotted them. I joyfully yell out, "I finally found the one inch nipples I was looking for!" Claire starts laughing. Then I realize that David, a post-doc in our group, had walked by just as I was pointing and yelling about having found one-inch nipples. It looked like I was pointing at him. It didn't exactly go over well.

These are some of the more tame stories and comments. When I get back, ask me about the joke about spicy food.

Upcoming in life

By my next post (which will come later than on Sunday), I will be home in Cambridge. I haven't seen the moon, stars, or the night sky in over a month. I miss trees and clear blue sky. I haven't had reliable internet in the same amount of time. It will be nice to get back and see my friends and my room-mate.

Thanks for reading!

- Jason Munster

Deadhorse 2: A Descent Towards Impropriety

"How come the only time I hear poop jokes is when I am with the Harvard team?" -Our airplane mechanic.

Caribou with a drill rig in the background

Caribou with a drill rig in the background

 

Imagine working 12-14 hours a day, 7 days a week, in a place where the sun never sets. You lose track of which day it is, how long you have been here, how long you have left here. People here work 2 weeks on, 2 weeks off. More than that and it gets weird. Oil workers work 3 weeks on, 3 weeks off. Their motto? "It's not gay if it's week 3!"

When I first arrived in deadhorse, it was more like this:

Apparently at third week, everyone gets confused and it starts to look like this:

We are here for a little over 4 weeks. How's this affecting our group? We are making awful jokes. We've all started making 3 week jokes around the oil and other workers. Recently I was hanging out playing Magic: The Gathering (yep) with some random people I met here. Chris comes down to make fun of me a bit, starts walking towards the cafeteria, and asks if I want anything. I say, "From you? It's not week 3 yet." Laughter all around. Literally every single person here enjoys a good 3-week joke.

I found out that Deadhorse has almost no real permanent residents. There are a very small number of people that enjoy working here and don't like society. They stay for 13 weeks, and are forced to take a week off. They make more than $10k a month and have no expenditures (all food and such is provided), and they have done this for 20 years. In short, they are millionaires and just don't want to be anywhere else. Outside of this, everyone leaves Deadhorse.

 

Deadhorse

As you can see from the caribou photo above, this place really is just oil and wilderness. It is all dirt roads, and there is no car wash. Check out this bus!

Dirty bus! There is no pavement here, and there are no car washes.

Dirty bus! There is no pavement here, and there are no car washes.

Slope Wives

I had to take a day trip to Anchorage to pick up a vital piece of equipment. While there, I went out to a bar and talked with a ton of random locals. I heard about a phenomenon called the Slope Wife. It's been said here that when you go to the slope, you don't lose your wife/girlfriend, you just lose your place in line. I thought this was an exaggeration. It's not. Everyone I ran into in Anchorage said that if a woman has a husband on the slope, she is highly likely to cheat on him. They are in effect "open season" at the bar. I don't like this. I was happy to return to my team on the North Slope after a night in Anchorage.

Mag-Tec

We live in a man-camp called Mag-Tec. It's really great here. The food here is amazing. 3 really great meals a day in a cafeteria. On one of my first days here I walked into the cafeteria and Charles, the cook, yells to me "How do you like your steak?" I thought he was kidding. And then I saw a giant pile of steaks. It's some of the best steak I have eaten. On Sunday nights, they have prime rib. In 4 more hours, I get to eat some excellent prime rib. You know when else I have been able to have prime rib? Pretty much never. This place is great in that respect.

Rooms are off a hallway with shared bathrooms. We can't lock the rooms during the day. The place is like a dorm. We hang out in our rooms at night. A bunch of 30 and 40 year olds sitting in a tiny dorm room, interpreting data and making awful jokes. It's like something out of a Saturday Night Live skit.

Prime rib and shrimp. We get this every Sunday.

Prime rib and shrimp. We get this every Sunday.

Research

We are kicking ass up here. More on that next week. For now, here is a photo of our plane flying low over ground.

Bernie flying low with wings perpendicular to the ground

 

Thanks for reading!

- Jason Munster

Deadhorse 1

It was  below 0C in August in my first two days here.

The North Slope of Alaska is flat and has lots of lakes and running water

The North Slope of Alaska is flat and has lots of lakes and running water

Deadhorse, Prudhoe Bay, AK, is different from most other places. Deadhorse is practically devoid of women, and has zero children. I asked a friend who works here on the oil rigs what dating was like: "The same as working everywhere in Alaska. Get in line and wait your turn."

Deadhorse is a dry town. You can't buy alcohol here. If someone working here is found with alcohol, they are fired or kicked out. The workers here will occasionally buy cool-aid, throw some champagne yeast in, and brew their own awful alcohol that way.

There are no hotels here. Instead there are Man-Camps. There are no restaurants in Deadhorse, and no place to buy real food to cook. You eat at a mancamp. There was an outbreak of the flu here a few weeks back, and an entire camp was quarantined. From then on, every camp requires that you use hand sanitizer upon entrance, and you use disposable plastic gloves on top of that when you get your food. All the hangar facilities here also have hand sanitizer everywhere.

This is not a town, it's a construction site.

This is not a town, it's a construction site.

There is no pavement. Dirt roads lead everywhere. You get dust and mud on your boots (you don't wear shoes). Upon entering a camp, you rub your shoes on some aggressive mud-and-dust removing blocks. After that you are required to put fabric booties over your boots. You are not allowed to walk around in camps in sandals or barefoot. Everyone has big manly boots with fabric booties over them.

Bears roam freely through town. I wanted to take a picture of one, but I have been assured that a grizzly does not look majestic while rummaging through a dumpster, emerging with an ice cream wrapper stuck to its head.

The only passenger vehicle used here is a 4WD king cab diesel pickup. All trucks have heating blocks in them, because it is so cold in the winter that the oil in the engine would turn to a gel if left unheated. In every single parking lot there are dozens upon dozens of plugs for these trucks to keep warm during the forever night of an Arctic winter.

Every truck needs to be plugged in during the winter, or it won't start again.

Every truck needs to be plugged in during the winter, or it won't start again.

 

Because of the bears, we are required to keep our keys in the trucks and the trucks unlocked. If someone is walking along, they need the safety of a heavy truck to dive into immediately, and be able to drive off.

No one is worried about theft here. We don't get keys to our hotel rooms. They are left unlocked when we leave. There is no black market here, so what would someone do with something they stole? We freely leave most of our possessions out, knowing that no one will touch them.

8/7-Research

Our plane has arrived. We had to make repairs to the cooling of the Laser Pressure Vessel (it is an airplane, so as it flies higher, the ambient air pressure decreases. A pressure vessel holds the instrument at one pressure to keep everything precise) on the methane detection instrument.

 

I forgot my boots at lab. My advisor is flying out on 8/8. He is putting them in his luggage. That's right, my advisor thinks nothing of carrying my hiking boots across the country for field work. He's pretty cool that way. Would your PhD advisor do that?

8-10

We flew!

8-11

We had some heat control issues with the laser system, and two of our three instrument overheated.

That's all for now. Thanks for reading!

- Jason Munster