I'm the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center's Sustainability Information Curator, which is a fancy way of saying embedded librarian. I'm also Executive Director of the Great Lakes Regional Pollution Prevention Roundtable. When not writing for Environmental News Bits, I'm an avid reader. Visit Laura's Reads to see what I'm currently reading.
At the close of the G7 Summit earlier in June, the leadership of the Group of Seven departed Cornwall with a clear mandate to “build back better.” Specifically, wealthy nations are attempting to navigate both the ongoing turmoil of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ever-present reality of the climate crisis. In doing so, they must confront certain core aspects of these crises, and the approaches that they take set an important precedent for the COP26 summit in November.
Here is a deeper look at $100 billion that wealthy nations have promised to less-developed economies. As we explain, the challenge has not only been getting wealthy nations to commit their share to this sum, but also in delivering this aid so that it can be effective.
When Mayor Emily Larson first heard the hype about her city’s potential as a so-called climate haven — a place people will flock to as rising seas, drought, heat and wildfire make other regions less hospitable — “I thought it was bananas.”
But in the years since, Larson said, she has come to realize “it’s already happening.”
As climate change fuels dramatic changes that scientists say will make places in the West, South, and along the ocean coasts increasingly unlivable, the city has become a national poster child for the population shift that experts expect to see across the Great Lakes region, where milder climates and abundant fresh water could fuel immigration.
North Carolina State University researchers have created insecticide-free, mosquito-resistant clothing using textile materials they confirmed to be bite-proof in experiments with live mosquitoes. They developed the materials using a computational model of their own design, which describes the biting behavior of Aedes aegypti, the mosquito that carries viruses that cause human diseases like Zika, Dengue fever and yellow fever.
Ultimately, the researchers reported in the journal Insects that they were able to prevent 100 percent of bites when a volunteer wore their clothing – a base layer undergarment and a combat shirt initially designed for the military – in a cage with 200 live, disease-free mosquitoes. Vector Textiles, an NC State startup company, has licensed the related patent rights and intends to make clothing for commercial sale in the United States.
An estimated eight million tons of plastic trash enters the ocean each year, and most of it is battered by sun and waves into microplastics—tiny flecks that can ride currents hundreds or thousands of miles from their point of entry. The bits can harm sea life and marine ecosystems, and they’re extremely difficult to track and clean up.
Now, University of Michigan researchers have developed a new way to spot ocean microplastics across the globe and track them over time, providing a day-by-day timeline of where they enter the water, how they move and where they tend to collect. The approach relies on the Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) and can give a global view or zoom in on small areas for a high-resolution picture of microplastic releases from a single location.
As an environmental toxicologist, I study the effects of wildfire smoke and how they differ from other sources of air pollution. We know that breathing wildfire smoke can be harmful. Less clear is what the worsening wildfire landscape will mean for public health in the future, but research is raising red flags.
In parts of the West, wildfire smoke now makes up nearly half the air pollution measured annually. A new study by the California Air Resources Board found another threat: high levels of lead and other metals turned up in smoke from the 2018 Camp Fire, which destroyed the town of Paradise. The findings suggest smoke from fires that reach communities could be even more dangerous than originally thought because of the building materials that burn.
Here’s a closer look at what makes up wildfire smoke and what you can do to protect yourself and your family.
What’s in wildfire smoke?
What exactly is in a wildfire’s smoke depends on a few key things: what’s burning – grass, brush or trees; the temperature – is it flaming or just smoldering; and the distance between the person breathing the smoke and the fire producing it.
The distance affects the ability of smoke to “age,” meaning to be acted upon by the Sun and other chemicals in the air as it travels. Aging can make it more toxic. Importantly, large particles like what most people think of as ash do not typically travel that far from the fire, but small particles, or aerosols, can travel across continents.
Smoke from wildfires contains thousands of individual compounds, including carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, carbon dioxide, hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides. The most prevalent pollutant by mass is particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, roughly 50 times smaller than a grain of sand. Its prevalence is one reason health authorities issue air quality warnings using PM 2.5 as the metric.
The new study on smoke from the 2018 Camp Fire found dangerous levels of lead in smoke blowing downwind as the fire burned through Paradise, California. The metals, which have been linked to health harms including high blood pressure and developmental effects in children with long-term exposure, traveled more than 150 miles on the wind, with concentrations 50 times above average in some areas.
The human body is equipped with natural defense mechanisms against particles bigger than PM2.5. As I tell my students, if you have ever coughed up phlegm or blown your nose after being around a campfire and discovered black or brown mucus in the tissue, you have witnessed these mechanisms firsthand.
The really small particles bypass these defenses and disturb the air sacs where oxygen crosses over into the blood. Fortunately, we have specialized immune cells present called macrophages. It’s their job to seek out foreign material and remove or destroy it. However, studies have shown that repeated exposure to elevated levels of wood smoke can suppress macrophages, leading to increases in lung inflammation.
Dose, frequency and duration are important when it comes to smoke exposure. Short-term exposure can irritate the eyes and throat. Long-term exposure to wildfire smoke over days or weeks, or breathing in heavy smoke, can raise the risk of lung damage and may also contribute to cardiovascular problems. Considering that it is the macrophage’s job to remove foreign material – including smoke particles and pathogens – it is reasonable to make a connection between smoke exposure and risk of viral infection.
Recent evidence suggests that long-term exposure to PM2.5 may make the coronavirus more deadly. A nationwide study found that even a small increase in PM2.5 from one U.S. county to the next was associated with a large increase in the death rate from COVID-19.
What can you do to stay healthy?
Here’s the advice I would give just about anyone downwind from a wildfire.
Stay informed about air quality by identifying local resources for air quality alerts, information about active fires and recommendations for better health practices.
If possible, avoid being outside or doing strenuous activity, like running or cycling, when there is an air quality warning for your area.
Be aware that not all face masks protect against smoke particles. Most cloth masks will not capture small wood smoke particles. That requires an N95 mask that fits and is worn properly. Without a proper fit, N95s do not work as well.
Establish a clean space. Some communities in western states have offered “clean spaces” programs that help people take refuge in buildings with clean air and air conditioning. However, during the pandemic, being in an enclosed space with others can create other health risks. At home, a person can create clean and cool spaces using a window air conditioner and a portable air purifier.
Illinois municipalities hoping to save money on energy costs for wastewater treatment turn to the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) Technical Assistance Program (TAP) for advice.
The Wastewater Treatment Plant Energy Assistance Program started in 2018 with funding from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency. Partnering with the University of Illinois’ Smart Energy Design Assistance Center (SEDAC), the TAP team visits publicly owned wastewater treatment plants across the state and drafts no-cost assessments with specific recommendations on how to lower energy costs. Similar assessments would cost between $6,000 and $12,000.
In four years, this project has developed 108 specialized energy efficiency assessments for individual wastewater treatment plants, identifying recommendations that can save municipalities over $2.8 million annually.
Wastewater treatment plants are one of the largest users of energy in cities. The costs are significant, particularly for plants with older infrastructure. The assessments typically include costs for equipment upgrades or retrofits, the time it takes for an upgrade to pay off in energy savings, and the amount of savings that could be realized with these upgrades.
Assessments also include utility incentives from companies such as Ameren and ComEd to offset as much as 75 percent of the costs for new and updated equipment, according to Mike Springman, retiring manager of the program.
To date, the program has assisted plants serving a total population of nearly 3 million with an annual energy cost savings of $500,000 each year. If the recommendations were all implemented, the savings would include 37.6 million kilowatt hours of electricity and greenhouse gas emissions at 32,590 metric tons of CO2 equivalent.
The most common areas that could be improved upon to save energy costs are controls on air blowers, variable speed drives on pumps, and indoor and outdoor lighting. Even small changes can make a big difference, Springman said.
Recently, more plant operators have posed questions about solar energy. Size of the facility and space availability are primary determining factors.
“The next assessment reports will include a discussion on solar energy so that they can make an educated decision,” Springman said.
Over time, Springman’s job has become more challenging.
“The opportunities for cost savings are becoming more complicated,” he said. “The low-hanging fruit has been picked. The easy, low-cost items have already been fixed.”
Springman says that the biggest challenge that treatment plants have faced this year is the biodegradeable wipes that end up in the sewer system. The wipes may eventually degrade in a landfill but they bind up the pumps at wastewater treatment plants, causing a big headache for staff.
The IEPA-supported Energy Assistance Program is expected to continue for at least another three years and beginning in July 2021 will also be extended to municipally operated potable water treatment systems.
Carbon dioxide capture and utilization, and sequestration (CCUS) comprises both the large‐scale capture of CO2 (via direct capture from air, ocean, or point sources), functional utilization of concentrated CO2 for the production of value‐added products, and long term sequestration. A wide range of products ranging from low to high value can be generated from CO2 through CCU, but these products come at an energy price, and not all products will achieve net negative emissions (for example, conversion of fossil CO2 to liquid fuels). Selecting optimal combinations of capture, conversion technologies and target products or geologic sequestration, and then coupling these technologies with CO2 sources and the necessary energy infrastructure is an enormous challenge that has gone largely unaddressed. In this study, we develop system‐wide strategies for CCUS technologies that can offer negative emissions at meaningful scales. We apply techno‐economic analysis (TEA) and life cycle assessment (LCA) to help identify emerging negative emissions technologies that can be implemented to capture CO2 from various dilute sources (air, ocean, other biogenic sources), as well as to understand potential technological bottlenecks in capture, utilization, and sequestration of these streams. We focus on those that are emerging from research efforts within the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (e.g., use of electrochemical methods for CO2 conversion, novel CO2 sorbents, such as metal organic frameworks, MOFs, and sequestration in basalt formations).
About the speaker
Dr. Hanna Breunig is a Research Scientist and Deputy Leader in the Sustainable Energy and Environmental Systems Department at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. She holds a secondary joint appointment in the Climate and Ecosystem Science Division. Hanna specializes in systems analysis of early stage energy, water, and waste technologies. These include waste‐to‐energy/resource systems, circular economy, bioenergy, brine management, and gas (H2, CO2, CH4) capture, utilization, and storage technologies. She holds a B.Sc. in Environmental Engineering from Cornell University and an M.Sc. and Ph.D. in Civil and Environmental Engineering from UC Berkeley.
The climate in Illinois is changing rapidly. Illinois is already warmer and wetter than it was a century ago, and climate change will continue to drive rapid changes across the state. A new report from The Nature Conservancy – the first-ever comprehensive climate assessment for Illinois – details these changes, projects how temperature, precipitation, and extreme weather are expected to change, and explores how the state’s agriculture sector is likely to be affected by climate change.
In this webinar, leading climate experts and Illinois scientists will discuss the results of the new report. Learn how predicted changes could affect Illinois agriculture & producers, including impacts to hydrology and public health.
Sharing key takeaways from the assessment will be: Illinois State Climatologist Trent Ford; Jim Angel, former Illinois State Climatologist and co-author of the climate report; and Elena Grossman, Research Specialist, Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences, University of Illinois Chicago School of Public Health.