EPA to reconsider incinerator emission standards in proposed consent decree following lawsuit

Read the full story at Waste Dive.

By the end of this year, the EPA will issue a notice of proposed rulemaking for emissions standards related to municipal solid waste incinerators under the terms of a draft consent decree reached with environmental groups. The decree was submitted to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on May 23.

Groups, including Earthjustice, the Sierra Club, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice and Ironbound Community Corp., sued the EPA in January 2022 over its alleged failure under the Clean Air Act to revisit the rules every five years. The decree would require EPA to finalize a new rule by November 30, 2024.

Environmental groups hope the draft decree could tighten federal emissions standards for 68 MSW incinerators, leading to tighter regulations for nine pollutants, including sulfur dioxide, dioxins and nitrous oxides. The suit is part of a broader effort by environmental groups who say the EPA is behind the times in regulating several categories of waste incinerators, including MSW and medical waste.

Plans for I-55 expansion in Chicago raise concerns over air quality and community health

Read the full story from Inside Climate News. See also coverage from the Chicago Sun-Times.

Environmental advocates and community groups already exposed to high levels of air pollution fear that additional lanes will exacerbate health risks in Southwest Side neighborhoods.

Nearly 2 million in Illinois live near warehouses shrouded by truck pollution

Read the full story in the Chicago Sun-Times.

Illinois has been a freight hub since its beginnings, from waterways to rails to interstate highways to modern intermodal transportation centers to an unprecedented proliferation of warehouses to satisfy the demands of online shoppers. 

Increasingly, warehouses crop up beside neighborhoods, exposing people living nearby to exhaust fumes from starting, stopping and idling trucks. And these diesel plumes carry a host of potential health threats to the public, including low birth rates, respiratory illnesses, even dementia.

These are the findings of a recent report from the Environmental Defense Fund, an advocacy group that, using proximity-mapping technology, found that about 15 million people live within a half mile of a warehouse in 10 states it examined, including more than one million children under 5 years old. 

How wildfire smoke can harm human health, even when the fire is hundreds of miles away – a toxicologist explains

The sunset in Jersey City, N.J., glows orange through smoke from wildfires in Canada in May 2023. Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

by Christopher T. Migliaccio, University of Montana

Smoke from more than 200 wildfires burning across Canada has been turning skies hazy in North American cities far from the flames. We asked Chris Migliaccio, a toxicologist at the University of Montana who studies the impact of wildfire smoke on human health, about the health risks people can face when smoke blows in from distant wildfires.

What’s in wildfire smoke that’s a problem?

When we talk about air quality, we often talk about PM2.5. That’s particulate matter 2.5 microns or smaller – small enough that it can travel deep into the lungs.

Exposure to PM2.5 from smoke or other air pollution, such as vehicle emissions, can exacerbate health conditions like asthma and reduce lung function in ways that can worsen existing respiratory problems and even heart disease.

But the term PM2.5 only tells you about size, not composition – what is burning can make a significant difference in the chemistry.

A map of North America shows where wildfire smoke from fires in Alberta, Canada, was forecast to blow across the U.S. and eastern Canada. Light smoke reaches as far south as northern Texas and Tennessee.
Smoke from wildfires in Canada on May 21, 2023, was visible across a large part of the U.S. FireSmoke Canada

In the northern Rockies, where I live, most fires are fueled by vegetation, but not all vegetation is the same. If the fire is in the wildland urban interface, manufactured fuels from homes and vehicles may also be burning, and that’s going to create its own toxic chemistry. Chemists usually talk about volatile organic compounds, (VOCs), carbon monoxide and PAHs, or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons produced when biomass and other matter burns having the potential to harm human health.

How does inhaling wildfire smoke harm human health?

Illustration of a small section of lungs showing the alveoli and, within the alveoli, a close up of a microphage
Where macrophages are found in alveoli, the tiny air sacs in the lungs.

If you have ever been around a campfire and got a blast of smoke in your face, you probably had some irritation. With exposure to wildfire smoke, you might also get some irritation in the nose and throat and maybe some inflammation.

As with a lot of things, the dose makes the poison – almost anything can be harmful at a certain dose.

Generally, cells in the lungs called alveolar macrophages will pick up the particulates and clear them out – at reasonable doses. It’s when the system gets overwhelmed that you can have a problem.

One concern is that smoke can suppress macrophage function, altering it enough that you become more susceptible to respiratory infection. A colleague who looked at lag time in the effect of wildfire smoke exposure found an increase in influenza cases after a bad fire season. Studies in developing countries have also found increases in respiratory infections with people who are cooking on open fires in homes.

The stress of an inflammatory response can also exacerbate existing health problems. Being exposed to wood smoke won’t independently cause someone to have a heart attack, but if they have underlying risk factors, such as significant plaque buildup, the added stress can increase the risk.

Researchers are also studying potential effects on the brain and nervous system from inhaled particulate matter.

When smoke blows over long distances, does its toxicity change?

We know that the chemistry of wildfire smoke changes. The longer it’s in the atmosphere, the more the chemistry will be altered by ultraviolet light, but we still have a lot to learn.

Researchers have found that there seems to be a higher level of oxidation, so oxidants and free radicals are being generated the longer smoke is in the air. The specific health effects aren’t yet clear, but there’s some indication that more exposure leads to greater health effects.

The supposition is that more free radicals are generated the longer smoke is in atmosphere and exposed to UV light, so there’s a greater potential for health harm. A lot of that, again, comes down to dose.

A photo looking out at the Denver skyline shows a very hazy cities.
Denver was listed among the world’s worst cities for air pollution on May 19, 2023, largely because of the wildfire smoke from Canada. Colorado Air Pollution Control Division

Chances are, if you’re a healthy individual, going for a bike ride or a hike in light haze won’t be a big deal, and your body will be able to recover.

If you’re doing that every day for a month in wildfire smoke, however, that raises more concerns. I’ve worked on studies with residents at Seeley Lake in Montana who were exposed to hazardous levels of PM2.5 from wildfire smoke for 49 days in 2017. We found a decrease in lung function a year later. No one was on oxygen, but there was a significant drop.

This is a relatively new area of research, and there’s still a lot we’re learning, especially with the increase in wildfire activity as the planet warms.

What precautions can people take to reduce their risk from wildfire smoke?

If there is smoke in the air, you want to decrease your exposure.

Can you completely avoid the smoke? Not unless you’re in a hermetically sealed home. The PM levels aren’t much different indoors and out unless you have a really good HVAC system, such as those with MERV 15 or better filters. But going inside decreases your activity, so your breathing rate is slower and the amount of smoke you’re inhaling is likely lower.

A satellite animation shows smoke moving from fires in Alberta across Canada and into New England.
A satellite captures wildfire smoke on May 16, 2023. NASA EarthData

We also tend to advise people that if you’re in a susceptible group, such as those with asthma, create a safe space at home and in the office with a high-level stand-alone air filtration system to create a space with cleaner air.

Some masks can help. It doesn’t hurt to have a high-quality N95 mask. Just wearing a cloth mask won’t do much, though.

Most states have air quality monitors that can give you a sense of how bad the air quality is, so check those sites and act accordingly.

Christopher T. Migliaccio, Research Associate Professor in Toxicology, University of Montana

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

BP refinery hit with $40 million fine, agrees to spend $200 million on pollution control

Read the full story in the Chicago Sun-Times.

BP agreed to pay a $40 million penalty and spend almost $200 million on environmental controls to settle government allegations that the company released excessive toxic chemicals at its Whiting, Indiana, oil refinery on Lake Michigan.

The installation of new pollution controls will reduce benzene and other harmful air pollutants, according to federal officials who had accused the Northwest Indiana operation of violating the Clean Air Act. 

Air pollution may increase risk for dementia

Read the full story from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Exposure to fine particulate air pollutants (PM2.5) may increase the risk of developing dementia, according to a new meta-analysis.

Hundreds of gas plants could escape EPA climate rules

Read the full story at ClimateWire.

About 1,000 natural gas-fired power plants that provide energy at periods of peak demand could be excluded from the toughest standards under EPA’s upcoming carbon rules.

These plants are often located in urban areas, raising concern among some environmental advocates that the agency’s climate rules on power plants could lead to increased pollution in low-income communities.

Air pollution is linked to lower COVID-19 vaccine responses

Read the full story from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health.

People exposed to higher levels of air pollution before the pandemic had lower antibody responses to COVID-19 vaccines, according to a study led by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal), an institution supported by “la Caixa” Foundation, in collaboration with the Germans Trias i Pujol Research Institute (IGTP). In particular, exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and black carbon (BC) was associated with about a 10% decrease in IgM and IgG antibody responses in people without prior infection. The findings, published in Environmental Health Perspectives, provide further evidence on the adverse effects of air pollution on the immune system.

Zero-Emission Delivery Zones: Decarbonizing Urban Freight and Goods Delivery in U.S. Cities

Download the paper.

This paper describes zero-emission delivery zones (ZEDZs) and their potential to address the negative impacts from increased urban freight and delivery. With insights from over 15 interviews of city policymakers, logistics experts, businesses and community-based organizations, this working paper evaluates real-world ZEDZ examples and offers policymakers preliminary guidelines for the enactment of effective and equitable ZEDZs.

How the Clean Air Act lets closed coal plants keep polluting for years

Read the full story from Reuters.

Hatfield’s Ferry Power Station, a Pennsylvania coal-fired power plant, stopped producing electricity in 2013. Its closure came in a wave of coal-plant shutdowns triggered by competition from cheaper, cleaner natural gas and incentives in the U.S. Clean Air Act.

But the facility’s legacy of smog pollution continued long after it closed.

That’s because a loophole in clean-air regulations allowed Hatfield’s Ferry to collect emissions allowances under a cap-and-trade program for five years after it shut down. The plant’s owner then sold those credits to other plants, which can use them to stay in compliance when they exceed their own regulatory budget of allowances. Among the beneficiaries: the biggest emitter of smog-causing gas in America’s power sector.