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The European Environmental Agency sets pollution exposure standards in its EU’s air quality directives (2008/50/EC, 2004/107/EC). These standards should not be exceeded in a given period of time. If they are nevertheless exceeded, then European governments have to find ways to act and reduce the pollutants. What is very surprising is that the EU target values are much lower than the World Health Organization guidelines. What is going on?

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pollutionThe recent 2016 EU Air Quality Report nicely shows  that air quality in Europe has been improving since 2000 across nearly all indicators. Whenever I can present a graph like the one on the right, I am happy. It makes me smile. I feel things are improving and my kids have a chance at a better future. With all the recent terrible events out there, the rise of right-wing attitudes and the many wars that are still being fought, these are finally good news.

BUT, like oh so many times, there is a catch. In fact, there are two catches.

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In this article I look at air pollution levels within Europe and among the G-20, discuss some of the recent academic research and potential solutions at the national and individual level.

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Come on, face it, the ice bucket challenge was really only a fad designated towards rich nerds to test their latest ice cube dispensor on their new fridge. My message today goes out to all those hard-core, punk-loving, high altitude and H2O-proximity cravers that search for some time off, to relax, to recover, to re-fill the adrenaline tank before heading off again.

Winter is nearing!

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Circular Economy is one of the phrases that you’ll nowadays most often hear at any sustainable development debate. It is basically a new catch phrase for anything that was previously associated with sustainable development. Since still nobody really knows how to make an economy sustainable, circular, square or rectangular, now, for yours truly, the EEA managed to come up with a very simple solution to the problem.

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EEA info graphic

The EEA just twittered that “Across EEA-33 countries, emissions of lead have decreased by 89%, mercury by 66% & cadmium by 64% from 1990 to 2011.”

What else to say than a big THANKS to those initiatives, organizations, interest groups, green lobbies and whoever else out there was putting effort into making these reductions come true?

Well – one thing to say is that there are still 1/10th of lead emissions to go, 1/3 of both mercury and cadmium. So keep it up! And thanks to the EEA for helping to regulate these heavy metals out of our lifes.

For all those interested in knowing why we don’t want these heavy metals in our lifes, here are some points that, not surprisingly, have been known for quite a long time.I copy freely from this 1987 book chapter by Hutton, entitled “Human Health Concerns of Lead, Mercury, Cadmium and Arsenic”.

The three metals, lead, mercury and cadmium, and the metalloid arsenic have all caused major human health problems in various parts of the world. The overt toxicity of these elements has been recognized for many years; indeed, the harmful effects of lead were known as far back as the second century BC in ancient Greece (Waldron, 1973).

In cases of high exposure, clinical signs and symptoms can be observed. At lower exposure levels clin- ical manifestations may be absent but effects may be observed at the physi- ological or biochemical level.

The US Environmental Protection Agency gives a short, non-exhaustive list of the effects of lead on humans:

  • damage to the brain and nervous system
  • behavioral problems
  • anemia
  • liver and kidney damage
  • hearing loss
  • hyperactivity
  • developmental delays
  • in extreme cases, death
  • nerve damage to the sense organs and nerves controlling the body
  • increased blood pressure
  • hearing and vision impairment
  • reproductive problems (e.g., decreased sperm count)
  • retarded fetal development even at relatively low exposure levels
  • persistent fatigue
  • irritability
  • loss of appetite
  • stomach discomfort and/or constipation
  • reduced attention span
  • insomnia

The US EPA gives a non-exhaustive list of the effects of mercury on humans:

  • Hand tremor
  • increases in memory disturbance
  • slight subjective and objective evidence of autonomic dysfunction
  • Autoimmune effects
  • Developmental neuropsychological impairment

And, finally, the US EPA information on cadmium‘s effect on humans:

  • Acute inhalation exposure to high levels of cadmium in humans may result in effects on the lung, such as bronchial and pulmonary irritation. A single acute exposure to high levels of cadmium can result in long-lasting impairment of lung function. (1,3,4)
  • Cadmium is considered to have high acute toxicity, based on short-term animal tests in rats. (5)
  • Chronic inhalation and oral exposure of humans to cadmium results in a build-up of cadmium in the kidneys that can cause kidney disease, including proteinuria, a decrease in glomerular filtration rate, and an increased frequency of kidney stone formation. (1,3,4)
  • Other effects noted in occupational settings from chronic exposure of humans to cadmium in air are effects on the lung, including bronchiolitis and emphysema. (1,3,4)
  • Chronic inhalation or oral exposure of animals to cadmium results in effects on the kidney, liver, lung, bone, immune system, blood, and nervous system. (1,3)
  • The Reference Dose (RfD) for cadmium in drinking water is 0.0005 milligrams per kilogram per day (mg/kg/d) and the RfD for dietary exposure to cadmium is 0.001 mg/kg/d; both are based on significant proteinuria in humans. The RfD is an estimate (with uncertainty spanning perhaps an order of magnitude) of a daily oral exposure to the human population (including sensitive subgroups) that is likely to be without appreciable risk of deleterious noncancer effects during a lifetime.  It is not a direct estimator of risk, but rather a reference point to gauge the potential effects.  At exposures increasingly greater than the RfD, the potential for adverse health effects increases.  Lifetime exposure above the RfD does not imply that an adverse health effect would necessarily occur. (6)
  • EPA has high confidence in both RfDs based primarily on a strong database for cadmium toxicity in humans and animals that also permits calculation of pharmacokinetic parameters of cadmium absorption, distribution, metabolism, and elimination. (6)
  • EPA has not established a Reference Concentration (RfC) for cadmium. (6)
  • The California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) has established a chronic reference exposure level of 0.00001 milligrams per cubic meter (mg/m3) for cadmium based on kidney and respiratory effects in humans. The CalEPA reference exposure level is a concentration at or below which adverse health effects are not likely to occur. (7)
  • Limited evidence exists for an association between inhalation exposure and a reduction in sperm number and viability in humans. (1)
  • Human developmental studies on cadmium are limited, although there is some evidence to suggest that maternal cadmium exposure may result in decreased birthweights. (1)
  • Animal studies provide evidence that cadmium has developmental effects, such as low fetal weight, skeletal malformations, interference with fetal metabolism, and impaired neurological development, via inhalation and oral exposure. (1,3,4)
  • Limited animal data are available, although some reproductive effects, such as decreased reproduction and testicular damage, have been noted following oral exposures. (1)
  • Several occupational studies have reported an excess risk of lung cancer in humans from exposure to inhaled cadmium. However, the evidence is limited rather than conclusive due to confounding factors. (1,3,6)
  • Animal studies have reported cancer resulting from inhalation exposure to several forms of cadmium, while animal ingestion studies have not demonstrated cancer resulting from exposure to cadmium compounds. (1,3,6)
  • EPA considers cadmium to be a probable human carcinogen (cancer-causing agent) and has classified it as a Group B1 carcinogen. (6)
  • EPA uses mathematical models, based on animal studies, to estimate the probability of a person developing cancer from breathing air containing a specified concentration of a chemical. EPA calculated an inhalation unit risk estimate of 1.8 × 10-3(µg/m3)-1. EPA estimates that, if an individual were to continuously breathe air containing cadmium at an average of 0.0006 µg/m3 (6 x 10-7 mg/m3) over his or her entire lifetime, that person would theoretically have no more than a one-in-a-million increased chance of developing cancer as a direct result of breathing air containing this chemical. Similarly, EPA estimates that continuously breathing air containing 0.006 µg/m3 (6 x 10-6 mg/m3) would result in not greater than a one-in-a-hundred thousand increased chance of developing cancer, and air containing 0.06 µg/m3 (6 x 10-5 mg/m3) would result in not greater than a one-in-ten thousand increased chance of developing cancer. For a detailed discussion of confidence in the potency estimates, please see IRIS. (6)

This links to my point from yesterday, that yes we have good scientific knowledge of many processes, but a certain lack of interest to thoroughly follow up on them. E.g. with all the knowledge about the dangers of these heavy metals, it seems still surprising that it took soooooo unbelievable long to regulate down these heavy metals to only 1/3 of the 1990 levels, especially given that we already knew so well before 1990 that these pollutants are so dangerous!

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I just came across this truly great, in-depth study by the European Environmental Agency entitled “Late lessons from early warnings: science, precaution, innovation”, EEA Report No 1/2013. Honestly, I view this as one of their most interesting reports for some while. I can really only urge everyone to take a look at that report. You can download it HERE and even obtain a free hardcopy HERE.

In that report the EEA looks at early warnings from various health hazards like lead in petrol, tabacco, or DDT; at different ecosystems; at emerging issues like radiation from nuclear incidents or mobile phones as well as at genetically-modified crops or nanotechnology.

Now, I have not had the time to go through the full report, but – and this is despite all my praise of the report – I noticed that the twelve late lessons to take away are, let’s say, somewhat too general. They are

  1. Acknowledge and respond to ignorance, uncertainty and risk
  2. provide monitoring and research in early warnings
  3. improve scientific knowledge
  4. etc…

So while these lessons are clearly useful to forward, I do not view these as particularly helpful. We are working on each of these lessons already and, in my opinion, they do not help us to see the source of the problem. The point is this: in every of the cases that the report analyzed, there was already sufficient scientific knowledge available that clearly gave some idea of the costs of what would happen if that technology would be implemented. The fact is that this knowledge was simply ignored.

My guess is that it was ignored because policy makers did not want to constrain innovation in their region/country, did not want to place the burden of proof on the companies themselves, and feared too much that international competition would take advantage of any precaution or reluctance in blindly moving in unknown territory. And this is the real danger. European companies recently even wrote a letter suggesting that the EU is restricting innovation by too much, see HERE.

We are simply not taking time anymore to fully reflect on decisions. We think that decisions need to be taken now and as quickly as possible, best yesterday, in order to keep competitiveness and innovation running. In doing so we thoroughly ignore potential impacts of any uncertain technology that may harm the biosphere for years to come. And since technology and innovation is advancing so quickly, who knows where this race will end!

This is especially more worrying since some technologies, like those that e.g. induce cancers, sometimes require years and years of thorough research in order to fully understand their true costs. Thus, one will see some individuals – company shareholders- running ahead collecting the benefits now, while a potentially larger mass of individuals may bear the brunt of the costs in the future.

Another problem is that the World Trade Organization is reluctant to accept trade barriers, even if they are based on reasons of uncertain technology or health hazards. How should countries undertake proper policy if their well-intended regulations are undermined by international laws? What if this leads to trade-wars or international conflicts only because one country is more profit-maximizing oriented than another that places sustainability at the forefront?

In my opinion, these points above are the real problems to address and the real lessons to take away. Early warnings do not work for those reasons above and they will not continue to impact technology adoption unless we take care of these issues!

By the way, a nice point of the report is this: Of 88 cases of claimed ‘false positives’, where hazards were wrongly regulated as potential risks, only four were genuine false alarms. The frequency and scale of harm from the mainly ‘false negative’ case studies indicate that shifting public policy towards avoiding harm, even at the cost of some false alarms, would seem to be worthwhile, given the asymmetrical costs of being wrong in terms of acting or not acting based on credible early warnings.

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