Reducing Air Pollution Has Helped Children in Northeast U.S., Study Finds
States in the Northeastern U.S. have made a considerable effort to make their air cleaner by reducing toxic mercury, sulfur dioxide and greenhouse gases emitted by the region's power plants. New research has found that those efforts have had an ancillary benefit of improving the health of children in the area, preventing hundreds of childhood illnesses and saving an additional hundreds of millions of dollars, as WBUR in Boston reported.
The emissions program, known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), was established in 2009 and sets a cap on planet-heating greenhouse gas emissions, offering power plants emissions allowances via permit auctions and allowing them to trade those allowances, as The New York Times reported.
Past studies of the RGGI have looked at outcomes such as heart attacks, hospitalizations and lost days of work, though they also took infant mortality, children's acute bronchitis, and some other respiratory symptoms into account. A 2017 study found that the health benefits of RGGI were worth somewhere between $3 and $8.3 billion. That includes health benefits to children estimated to be worth about $8.1 million, according to WBUR.
"We felt it was very important to include the outcomes that were associated with the pollutants that had been largely ignored," said Frederica Perera, who runs Columbia University's Center for Children's Environmental Health, to WBUR. "Because the long-term health benefits would be so great if we could prevent these very early damages from occurring."
Perera and her team found that the emissions reduction may have reduced the number of underweight births in the region and lowered the incidence of asthma and autism by hundreds of cases, offering enormous benefits to children and sparing them a lifelong need for excessive health care resources, according to the new research published in Environmental Health Perspectives.
"What makes this study particularly important is that it shows how we have so absurdly undervalued the welfare of our children in how we approach our public policies," said Aaron Bernstein, interim director of the Center for Climate, Health and Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and a pediatrician at Boston Children's Hospital, to WBUR. Bernstein was not involved with the study. "We really have a lot to gain by fully accounting for what air pollution and other forms of pollution do to children," he added.
The researchers quantified just how much RGGI has contributed to children's health. The main driver for the improved health was from the reduction of fine particulate matter (PM2.5). Due to the restriction, the region avoided an estimated 537 cases of child asthma, 112 preterm births, 98 cases of autism spectrum disorder, and 56 cases of low birth weight from 2009 to 2014, which provided an economic savings of between $191 million to $350 million, according to Environmental Health News.
"Toxic air pollutants are released right along with [carbon dioxide]," said Perera to the Environmental Health News. "Because of biological vulnerability, developing fetuses and young [children] are disproportionately affected by air pollution and climate change."
As for the dollar amount, Perera believes they low-balled the number.
"The cost estimates are conservative," she said to WBUR. That's because severe diseases in children "play out over their entire lifetimes, and they affect not just the child, but the families."
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Jean-Marc Neveu and Olivier Civil never expected to find themselves battling against disposable mask pollution.
When they founded their recycling start-up Plaxtil in 2017, it was textile waste they set their sights on. The project developed a process that turned fabrics into a new recyclable material they describe as "ecological plastic."
Mounting Piles of Waste<p>It is not only the streets of Chatellerault where pandemic pollution is piling-up, but also the world's beaches and oceans. Once there, they can take up to 450 years to degrade and disappear.</p><p>Esther Röling, co-organizer of the annual Adventure Clean Up Challenge held on Hong Kong Island, has seen this waste firsthand. In October the sports challenge pitted teams against one another in a competition to remove trash from 13 hard-to-reach coastal areas around the city.</p><p>They find tons of both disposable and reusable masks, said Röling. "You wonder how it ended up there. Was it just thrown on the ground? Or was it in a garbage bag that broke open?"</p><p>Almost 10,000 kilometers away in Antibes on the sunny French Riviera, it's a similar picture. For the past few months, divers and clean-up volunteers working with an ocean clean-up non-profit called Operation Mer Propre have been collecting an increasing number of masks found on land and in the sea.</p><p>"Since the beginning of the lockdown when we started to count, we've reached 800, 900, [and now in total] 1000 masks," said co-founder Joko Peltier. </p><p>According to <a href="https://unctad.org/news/growing-plastic-pollution-wake-covid-19-how-trade-policy-can-help" target="_blank">UN estimates</a>, up to 75% of all coronavirus-related plastic could end up as waste in oceans and landfills.</p>
The Limits of Recycling<p>Yet not all are convinced the recycling of this waste is possible on a global scale. </p><p>"What those citizen groups are doing is really beneficial but once they collect it, it should just go to a landfill or an incinerator. They shouldn't necessarily expect it to get recycled," said Jonathan Krones, an industrial ecologist and visiting assistant professor of environmental studies at Boston College.</p><p>That's because mask recycling programs like Plaxtil are few and far between and most don't have the benefit of a readily adaptable production process. </p><p>Even in countries with solid recycling infrastructure, he says, the system is designed to separate out specific types of waste like bottles or cardboard.</p><p>"I imagine that it would be technically feasible to develop a separation process to filter out masks, but there simply aren't enough of them to make that economical," he said.</p><p>Collection is a big hurdle, he adds. Since each mask only weighs a fraction of a gram and they're scattered on roads or mixed with other trash, it is difficult and costly. </p><p>"You need a lot of raw material of the right quality to make investing in the recycling technology and the recycling system worthwhile," he said.<span></span><br></p>
Hemp, Sugar Cane and Sustainable Alternatives<p>Some projects are instead addressing the material used to make masks.</p><p>French company Geochanvre have created a mask made primarily from hemp, while in Australia, researchers at the Queensland University of Technology are experimenting with a disposable product made from agricultural waste. </p><p>Biodegradable options are exciting alternatives to reduce the fossil fuels needed for the creation of plastic-based masks, said Krones, but they don't absolve the wearer from the responsibility of what happens afterwards. </p><p>Bio-based masks often need their own composing solutions, he explains, because in landfill they can produce high amounts of the greenhouse gas methane when anaerobic bacteria feeds on the organic material. Methane is known to be significantly more potent than carbon dioxide.</p><p>"I think as long as we have in our mind that we want to have disposability, we're going to have to wrestle with a variety of different sorts of environmental tradeoffs," he said, adding that reusable, fabric masks are the best option available to most people.</p><p>Precimask is developing a clear face covering with an optional visor made from hard plastic, designed to be long-lasting.<br></p><p>Air enters either side of the cheeks through a technology normally found in pool filters and car exhaust systems, said company spokeswoman Juliette Chambet.</p><p>"We wanted to make ceramic-based filters that would be washable and cleanable, which would allow them to be reused as many times as desired without having to buy a new consumable or produce waste," she said. </p><p>Ultimately, encouraging mask wearers to think about the entire lifecycle of a mask is key, explains Neveu. </p><p>"We want people who put on the masks to realize that they are also responsible for the waste, he said. "It's not inevitable that this [pandemic] will become an environmental catastrophe.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.dw.com/en/covid-19-recycling-pollution-trash-pandemic/a-55707817" target="_blank">Deutsche Welle</a>.</em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649032193#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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