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'Alarming' Report Uses NASA Satellite Data to Reveal World's Toxic Air Pollution Hotspots

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Power plants burning coal and oil along with refineries are responsible for two-thirds of the anthropogenic sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions tracked by NASA.

Global SO2 Emission Hotspot Database / Greenpeace

A new report by Greenpeace International pinpointed the world's worst sources of sulfur dioxide pollution, an irritant gas that harms human health. India has seized the top spot from Russia and China, contributing nearly 15 percent of global sulfur dioxide emissions.


Australia, a sparsely populated country, that burns a tremendous amount of coal for power and also mines copper, lead and zinc ranked 12th on the list, according to the report, as the Australian Associated Press reported.

The report singled out Australian air pollution standards as being too lax, since it allows power stations to emit sulfur dioxide at higher rates than in China and the European Union, as the Guardian reported. In fact, Australia has no regulations in place to limit sulfur dioxide emissions. Australia's air pollution standards are a target for criticism and political action since its standards are now 11 times higher than what the World Health Organization recommends.

"We need governments to be bringing in new standards backed by health organizations," said Jonathan Moylan, a Greenpeace Australia Pacific campaigner, as the Australian Associated Press reported.

Air pollution in Australia is a factor in 4,000 premature deaths each year, more than twice as many as the number of traffic related fatalities there each year. While sulfur dioxide is a main contributor to acid rain and its toxic particles negatively affect human health, contributing to heart and lung disease, as well as dementia.

"Air pollution is the price our communities pay for the federal government's failure to stand up to big polluters," said Moylan, as the Guardian reported. It's time for state environment ministers to show leadership by championing health-based sulfur and nitrogen dioxide standards, strong pollution limits for industry and speeding up the switch to clean renewable energy."

"Australia's power stations are some of the dirtiest in the world because they are allowed to emit up to eight times more air pollution that power stations in China," said Moylan to the Australian Associated Press.

Even though China ranked second in the world amongst the worst sources of toxic air pollution, it was complimented in the report, along with the U.S., rapidly reducing emissions.

"They have achieved this by switching to clean energy sources and particularly China achieved it through dramatically improving the emission standards and enforcement for SO2 control," the executive summary says.

Russia had the single worst polluting hotspot from its Norilsk smelter complex, followed by a power plant in South Africa. In fact, the Mpumalanga province in South Africa is home to 12 coal-fired power plants, which makes it the most toxic sulfur dioxide region hotspot in the world, according to a Greenpeace statement.

"These pollutants can cause childhood asthma, lung disease, cancer, birth defects and reproductive issues," said Ben Ewald, a doctor with Doctors for the Environment Australia, to the Guardian.


As for India, the world's top emitter of sulfur dioxide, the report noted the vast majority of plants in India lack flue-gas desulfurisation (FGD) technology to reduce air pollution. It goes on to note that the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change introduced emission limits for coal-fired power plants in December 2015. However, a Supreme Court order shifted the deadline for installation of FGD technology in power plants from 2017 to 2022.

The report was compiled after an analysis of hotspots detected by NASA Ozone Monitoring Instrument satellite data that captured more than 500 major source points of SO2 emissions across the globe.

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