Remedying air pollution, one person at a time

One of my friends once told me, "If you are complaining about the government and aren't doing anything to solve the problem, then you are part of the problem."

I decided to do more than write about pollution associated with energy, and have started a side project to build a breathing filter (and mask that it will go with) for people living in and visiting countries with significant air pollution.

My apologies for not posting this sooner, I wanted to wait until I had finished a major milestone on my PhD that was taking literally all of my time. In other words, I didn't want to post about "working on" something that I had no time to work on. I hope to become active again in posting related articles now that I've a bit of free time again.

20,000 people die every day from air pollution. Most of them cannot afford current filters. It's time to change that.

So. China and India are not going to institute US-level air pollution controls on their power plants. So if they aren't going to filter the entire sky the way we do, the next best thing is to just filter the parts that people breath. By filtering it just before they breath

"But Jay," you say, "Aren't there other masks on the market already?"

Indeed, my friend, there are. Except most of them fail in one way or another. Nearly all of them fail to achieve a face-seal. This means that there are small leaks. Small leaks are fine when you are filtering large particles like water droplets (think viruses that travel on sneeze particles), because the leaks are often at 90 degree angles. The droplets can't make those 90 degree bends, and they get absorbed by the mask or deposited on the skin. This is why doctors masks can be fairly effective. PM2.5 and chemical pollutants, however, are small. PM2.5 is 1/30th the width of a human hair in diameter. It can easily make a 90 degree turn through a leak in a mask, and get into your lungs where it penetrates deeply, creates scar tissue, and then gives you asthma and lung cancer until it kills you. The other pollutants are literally molecules. They have no problem making any bend of any sort. If there is a leak, they are getting through.

Gas mask. The only true way to ensure there is no leak.

What's the easiest way to tell if your mask leaks? Take a deep, sharp breath. If your mask doesn't push against your face from suction until the pressure equilibrates, you don't have a good seal. So pretty much, every mask short of the one pictures above doesn't work.

So this is one part of what I will address. I've a few methods to ensure no leaks while maintaining low costs for masks. I'm not exactly going to be open on how I will do it, but this is happening.

So, if you plan on traveling in China, India, or near LA (heh) next year and need a breathing filter, be sure to talk to me.

- Jason Munster

Air quality limits, Geographic Air Pollution Causes

Hi everyone! Last week I wrote about air pollution, where it is bad, what causes it, and the main harmful components of air pollution.This week I am going to give you some exact numbers. First, though, let's start with a scary fact. Then I'm moving into how pollution goes away once it is in the air.

US limits on PM2.5 are 12 micrograms per cubic meter averaged over a year. In Europe, the limit is 25. Note that for every increase of 10 micrograms, there is an associated 9% increase in lung cancer incidence, and a .6 years decrease in life expectancy. Scary, right? China has an annual average limit of 40, and India has an annual average limit of 50. They don't do so well in some cases. Beijing averages 56, and Delhi averages 150. In other words, Delhi's population has somewhere in the vicinity of 10 years less of life from air pollution alone.

What about other pollution? SOx, NOx, and ozone tend to accompany each other. Wherever you have SOx, you have the other two. Even clean-burning natural gas power plants produce NOx, just as a by-product of combustion is our nitrogen atmosphere. NOx becomes ozone and smog when mixed with sunlight and organic radicals (the latter of which exist just about everywhere). In other words, these three things are difficult to separate. Moreover, they are often accompanied by PM2.5. Research is having trouble teasing them apart and figuring out what might cause what. But, again, SOx and NOx become strong acids when they react with the water in your lungs, and ozone is toxic to life at ground level (always remember, ozone 15km overhead blocks out the bad parts of the sun, ozone at ground level damages living things).

SOx and NOx, once emitted, are typically cleared out by rainstorms, creating acid rain. It's better than breathing it in, right?

SOx and NOx, once emitted, are typically cleared out by rainstorms, creating acid rain. It's better than breathing it in, right?

The US has pretty good air quality overall. But if you look at the US government website that shows current levels of pm2.5, you'll see some cities in the US are straight up awful. While their annual average might be around 20-25, on the day I checked, San Bernardino, CA, had 137 micrograms per cubic meter. This is absurdly high. On days like this, people will have difficulty breathing.

Los Angeles on a polluted day. Thanks Curtis Barnes for the correction! Site.

In other words, you can go almost anywhere in the world and find places that are tough to breath in. That being said, there are some countries that are really bad almost everywhere. Bangladesh, India, Nepal, China, and Pakistan are all very polluted. Much of the middle east is as well.

So what makes these things hang out? The most common reasons are inversions. It's when warm air sits on top of colder air. Since air likes to rise when it is warm, if there is a layer of cold air that is polluted that also happens to be capped by warm air, that cold layer will sit there and stagnate. Instead of blowing up or away, it will simply accumulate pollution. Another cause is being surrounded by mountains. Mexico City, for example, is right in the middle of a bunch of mountains. The pollution cannot rise above the mountains, so it lingers and builds. It is also common for coastal areas, or areas next to high deserts, to have times when air refuses to vacate. Those mechanisms are a bit complicated, so we won't discuss them. Finally, being near 30 degrees North or South latitude tends to make air pollution stick around. LA, for example, is at 34 North. The reason for this being bad is that the Earth has the giant airflow patterns. Air is heated at the equator by the sun, then it rises. Eventually it cools and falls near 30 degrees north. The result is that inversions happen more frequently, cause there is air pushing down on the cities.

Diagram of temperature inversion. Site

That's about it for the major causes of air pollution buildup. Of course there has to be pollution to start with for these effects to matter.

Hokay, so, what makes PM2.5 go away when it starts hanging around? Either a wind comes through and blows it out, or a rain comes through. Rain scrubs PM2.5 by absorbing it, and it chemically converts SOx and NOx to acids that become solutes in the rain. Hence acid rain. Also hence why skies are most clear after rains, and how they can smell so fresh and clean after rain. So, if you are going to go for a run in Beijing or Delhi, wait til after a big rainstorm 🙂

Let's talk about that last point a little bit more. China is dry nearly all the time. It doesn't rain much there, so it has a bigger problem of building up air pollution. India has the monsoon season, but is also fairly dry otherwise. What about LA? If you have ever driven in a slight rainstorm in LA, you will see that everyone freaks out and has no clue how to drive in the rain. It's hilarious for about 5 seconds until you realize you are now in a traffic jam. It doesn't rain there, either.

So. Your most polluted places will be near 30 degrees latitude, potentially on the coast or in mountains, dry, and in the vicinity of polluting vehicles, industry, or power plants. Neat. right? I bet you thought it was just pollution alone that caused pollution to linger.

Hokay, that's all for now. Thanks for reading!

- Jason Munster

 

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

China's Water Shortage and Power Plants (their power plants definitely have a drinking problem)

In the previous post, I described how thermal power plants use a massive amount of water. This time we are going to explore a specific case. As usual, it's China.

Power plant water use can be a problem in a water-stricken area. Let's look at a case-study. China is a water-stricken area, and has a lot of thermal power plants. In fact, China uses more primary energy than any other country in the world. Unfortunately, their power plants are far less efficient than they should be. So they are wasting water, and this is unsustainable. Moreover, China has 1,350 million people. The US has 314 million.

First, let's look at the rainfall of China, compared to the US:

Rainfall in China, in inches

Rainfall in China, in inches

Rainfall in the US, in Inches

Rainfall in the US, in Inches

Looks pretty similar, right? Now recall that the US has 1/4 the population of China. And pretty much the exact same amount of area. Keep that in mind while we look at China's powerplant locations:

 

China's water stressed areas, compared to where power plants are planned. Source,

China's water stressed areas, compared to where power plants are planned. Source,

So. The places that have the most people and need the most power are the same as the dry places. In other words, China is building the bulk of its thermal power plants in the area that can't provide sufficient water to cool the power plants.

Before coming to the complete picture, let's check out the water use:

Fresh Water Use in the US. source

Fresh Water Use in the US.
source

In the US, 80% of water use is to grow food and to make electricity.

Finally, where is all this water coming from? Rain alone isn't enough, it comes from the ground. Fresh water from the ground is not unlimited, and we are running out of it. It's called Fossil Water, and here is what the situation looks like in the US:

Water withdrawals in the US

In other words, a huge chunk of our country is relying on water that will not exist in a few decades.

And looking at China:

China's groundwater depletion rate

In the US, the scale of groundwater depletion tops out around 400 cubic kilometers. In china, it tops out at 3,000 in regions. That's not to say that the US won't run out. It just says that China is in serious trouble.

Again, 80% of water use is for electricity and agriculture. And China has 4x the people of the US. There is not sufficient water. Would you rather run out of electricity, or run out of food? It's not an easy choice, but food can be imported. That being said, someone has to grow the food, and that country better have a robust water supply. Moreover, food growth is a low income industry. A country that marries itself to being a food supplier, unless it charges gouging levels of prices, is marrying itself to never being a high-income country. But charging price-gouging levels is a bad idea.

While this mental exercise was fun, let's look at some examples.

First, while Californians probably shouldn't have been growing water-intensive almonds in a dessert in the first place, running out of water has imperilled the world supply of all sorts of nuts and things. They are tearing up their farms because of lack of water.

That's only the start. Drought in Syria helped bring about war there. Syria is a tiny country that doesn't matter on the world scheme. India, China, and Pakistan face water shortages. Combined, they have 1/3 the world population. They also happen to hate each other. As climate change progresses, and some countries face droughts, people may not want to choose between food and electricity. They may try to divert water supplies, sparking tensions and even war.

So. Does your power plant have a drinking problem? If you live in China, it definitely does, and it's causing all sorts of strife.

Wrapping it all together: Yes, a country can import food. But you know how much of the world relies on the middle east for oil, and we talk about energy security? That's just stuff that makes your cars move. Remember how Russia threatens to shut off natural gas to Europe if they don't get in line with Russia's plans, and so much of Europe is cowed? That stuff keeps homes warm, but it isn't as important as food. Imagine a powerful country that is mostly reliant on other countries for food to stay alive. That's a really bad situation. The country in this situation has to either take dictations from whoever feeds them (not really a problem if you are getting your food from non-powerful nations, but still irksome), or has to take over a food-producing country.

One potential solution: Chinese power plants are notoriously inefficient. If you have a 25% thermodynamically efficient powerplant, it uses 30% more water than a 37.5% efficient power plant. China should either shut down inefficient plants and require new construction that is efficient, or require retrofits of old plants. It would be very expensive, but less expensive than the social and political cost of running out of water too soon. What about the US? Most of our plants are pretty efficient already. Especially our Natural Gas plants that much of the country runs on. We probably spend too much water on watering desserts to make food, but that's another story.

An almost-final note. While solar power and wind power use water in construction, their water use is minimal compared to that of thermal power plants. Barring solar-thermal (it's thermal, it uses water), these renewable resources are the only answer to the reducing the choice between electricity and food. In other words, expansion of wind power and solar PV is the only cheat code we have to deal with this impending water shortage.

One last thing. Why did I single out China? Only because I know a lot about China. Pakistan will have water shortage issues, but they already don't have electricity. In the summer, they have blackouts for up to 20 hours a day cause they can't produce enough electricity. This is a country of 180 million people, bordering India, and sharing a strong mutual resentment with India. More on this later, though.

Thanks for reading,

- Jason Munster

China, Accounting Pollution in Manufacturing, and Greenwashing

A Call for a Consumption Based Pollution Levy: Pollution from Chinese Export Manufactures Drift to US West Coast

Pictured here is a NASA image of smog in China. Nearly all the gray is smog. This is a result of the rise of manufacturing, and rapid production of low-quality power plants

Guys, no science in this one. Also, stay tuned for a better treatment of this topic from Archana Dayalu over at Policylab. I originally wrote this for policylab, but it turns out Archana had the same idea earlier. Hence you'll notice a completely different writing voice (it's not the fun one I use in my blog).

As I wrote in the past, outsourcing of manufacturing jobs allows the US to push all the pollution in manufacturing into other countries while enjoying lower prices of goods manufactured by cheap labor. Thanks to Kate Wang for bringing a recent NYT article to me attention.

An early edition report from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) shows that a significant amount of pollution drifts from China to the west coast of the United States. The authors argue for a changing of attribution of the associated pollutants to the consuming countries, rather than China, the producing country. The authors gloss over any potential impacts this would have on world trade. Lead author Jintai Lin writes:

Atmospheric modeling shows that transport of the export-related Chinese pollution contributed 3–10% of annual mean surface sulfate concentrations and 0.5–1.5% of ozone over the western United States in 2006. This Chinese pollution also resulted in one extra day or more of noncompliance with the US ozone standard in 2006 over the Los Angeles area and many regions in the eastern United States. On a daily basis, the export-related Chinese pollution contributed, at a maximum, 12–24% of sulfate concentrations over the western United States.

In other words, goods manufactured in China and consumed by the United States directly cause pollution in the western United States. The upside is that the former heavy manufacturing centers in the Eastern United States have outsourced to China, cleaning up the air of the Eastern US. The article points out that, given the dense population of the east coast, this is a net win for the US, at slight expense of the west coast and great expense of pollutants in China.

Air pollution in Beijing. One picture taken on a clear day, another on a smoggy day. This is the capitol city of China. This is the ugly side of outsourcing.

It remains unclear what the author's ultimate goals are. There is no international accounting of pollution. Either the authors are greenwashing--the practice of trying to make manufacturing or other industry look environmentally more friendly through the process of bullshitting--or they are anticipating some accounting system, either internal to China or external, in the future.

The authors argue for a different method of accounting for pollution associated with manufactured goods. Currently, all pollution is attributed to the producer. Chinese factories build the goods, China gets assigned the pollution in international ledgers. Consumption based attribution, they argue, would make more sense. The goods are made for American (and otherwise) consumption, and the pollution should therefore be attributed to America.

Disregarding whether this is right to do, or whether it would accomplish anything more than green-washing China’s economy, let’s explore several of the implications of this policy change. Specifically in a hypothetical world that has to account for pollution contained within products, which, aside from green-washing, would be the major reason to worry about pollution attribution. Manufacturing of these export goods requires significant amount of energy. The sulphur and black carbon that reaches the west coast specifically come from coal-fired ower plants. China puts few controls on emissions from these power plants, and the required rate of construction results in power plants that are significantly less efficient than those in the US. This means that every bit of energy produced and used in China, for manufacturing or otherwise, contains more pollution than it would in the US or any other developed country. Moreover, Chinese manufacturing is less efficient than developed countries for a variety of reasons.

The end result is that a good manufactured in China embodies more pollution than the exact same good manufactured in the US, Japan, Korea, Europe, or any other advanced nation. If policies were put in place to move to a consumption-based attribution of pollution, and that attribution had real-world implications on the cost or value of a product, Chinese goods would face a competitive disadvantage. The implications are pretty straightforward: either China cleans up its manufacturing and energy sector, greatly benefitting China and slightly benefitting the rest of the world from a pollution standpoint, or goods are produced in countries where they can be made for less environmental cost, hurting China’s exports while healing its air quality and benefitting the rest of the world financially and environmentally.

While this attributing of pollution on the consumption side seems to mostly have net benefits, it only works if purchasers or producers are forced to pay for pollution they bring about. We are not currently in a world where either are held accountable for the pollution associated with manufacture of Chinese exports. In this, Jintai Lin’s suggestion seems only like greenwashing: an attempt of finger-pointing for the destruction of China’s air quality and environment.

Thanks for reading

- Jason Munster