In Volkswagen emissions fraud scandal, proprietary software is the real villain


“Proprietary software is an unsafe building material. You can’t inspect it.”

Columbia University law professor Eben Moglen made that observation 5 years ago. It's timely today, as the Volkswagen emissions fraud scandal--enabled by proprietary software--worsens. Read the rest

This is how blue the skies were when Beijing banned 2.5 million cars for two weeks


In Beijing, China banned 2.5 million cars from driving for 2 weeks to get this beautiful blue sky for a World War II commemorative parade. As soon as the parade was over, the ban was lifted, and the blue vanished within 24 hours. Read the rest

US Navy: By 2050 Arctic Ocean ice will all melt in summers


Many troubling stats about climate change's effect in the North Pole region are tucked into Newsweek's article on the geopolitical gold rush taking place up there. Read the rest

1/4 of cars cause 9/10 of pollution


Researchers at the University of Toronto found that “badly tuned” cars are responsible for most of the air pollution. Read the rest

Inside Beijing's airpocalypse – a city made "almost uninhabitable" by pollution

Image: Shutterstock

The Guardian's Oliver Wainwright reports on the miasmal atmosphere enveloping Beijing. Read the rest

Air pollution: the holy Hajj's health threat

Dr. Azhar Siddique

Dr. Azhar Siddique

Reporting this week at the annual American Geophysical Union, scientists from UC Irvine discussed air quality results from samples taken during the 2012 and 2013 Hajj.

The annual pilgrimage brings between 3-4 million people to the holy city of Mecca. Isobel Simpson, the lead researcher on this project, stated that, "The problem is that this intensifies the pollution that already exists. We measured among the highest concentrations [of smog-forming pollutants] our group has ever measured in urban areas – and we’ve studied 75 cities around the world in the past two decades.”

The worst locations were tunnels leading into the Grande Mosque where carbon monoxide levels were up to 300 times higher than baseline measurements, and pedestrians were often walking in large numbers alongside idling motor vehicles. Increases in carbon monoxide are linked to increased numbers of hospitalizations and deaths from heart failure. In addition to carbon monoxide, the team found elevated levels of benzene, black carbon, and other fine particulates that can affect lung function.

The main culprit here that can be addressed by the Saudi government is a lack of regulation over automobiles, gasolines, and exhausts. Currently, there is a significant lack of public transportation in the area, and nearly everyone owns a car. Those cars don't have the devices that are currently required and built into vehicles in the Unites States to limit pollution.

The easiest thing to fix would be separating pedestrians from cars in the tunnels, or at least spreading vehicles out more evenly among the tunnels leading to the Mosque, so that pollutants don't build up as much and negatively affect those walking in. Read the rest

Greenpeace: Heavy metals pollution in China makes 'Cadmium rice' a growing problem

Image: Greenpeace

Greenpeace this week released a report on soil and rice crops sampled in villages close to a concentration of heavy metals smelters in China's Hunan Province, "an area that ranks first in rice output and among the top five in nonferrous metals production." The results showed that both rice and soil near the industrial complex are contaminated by heavy metals, including lead. "12 out of all 13 rice samples contained excessive levels of cadmium." Read the "Cadmium rice" report at Greenpeace East Asia. Here's a related piece at the New York Times. Read the rest

30-year-old lead finds its way into the trendy urban chicken business

The United States began phasing out the use of tetraethyllead in gasoline in the mid 1970s (though it's still used in aviation and race car fuel). The pollution from TEL-enhanced gas, however, continues to linger in the soil, especially in cities, where concentrations of tailpipe emissions were higher. A recent study of New York City chickens found that lead from the soil was showing up in detectable levels in the chickens' eggs. The dose is low (though you probably don't want young children eating lots of those eggs), but it's a great example of how the effects of pollution don't vanish just because the pollution ends. Read the rest

China air pollution from space

Speaks for itself, doesn't it? NASA:

When the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite acquired this image on December 7, 2013, thick haze stretched from Beijing to Shanghai, a distance of about 1,200 kilometers (750 miles). For comparison, that is about the distance between Boston, Massachusetts, and Raleigh, North Carolina. The brightest areas are clouds or fog. Polluted air appears gray. While northeastern China often faces outbreaks of extreme smog, it is less common for pollution to spread so far south.
Read the rest

Cool, interactive site shows you how ocean currents carry flotsam around the globe

Drop a message-in-a-bottle into the Gulf of Mexico, somewhere near New Orleans, and, 10 years later, your missive has a high likelihood of ending up near Cuba — or northern France. The website Adrift uses data from a global system of floating buoys to show you how ocean currents carry things like plastic debris around the planet. Read the rest

Life in a toxic country

New York Times China correspondent Edward Wong describes his life in heavily polluted Beijing, where he no longer feels safe running outside and, in order to bike around town, dons a black air filter face mask that makes him "look like an Asian Darth Vader". Read the rest

Why "cancer clusters" are so hard to confirm

This excerpt from the new book, Read the rest

Erin Brockovich: the real-life unhappy ending of Hinkley, California, and a tale of science for sale

PBS NewsHour's Miles O'Brien travels to Hinkley, CA, the town whose multi-million dollar settlement for groundwater contamination inspired the movie "Erin Brockovich."

The truth is stranger than data visualization

I'm honestly not sure which is weirder: That Clean Air Asia made an interactive map of air pollution that visualizes various cities' smog levels in terms of nose-hair length ... or the fact that thicker, more luxuriant nose hairs really do reduce your risk of asthma. The world is a strange place, people. Read the rest

Clean rivers: A 20th/21st century miracle

I was born in 1981 and, because of that, I largely missed the part of American history where our rivers were so polluted that they did things like, you know, catch fire. But it happened. And, all things considered, it didn't happen that long ago. The newspaper clippings above are from a 1952 fire on Ohio's Cuyahoga river. Between 1868 and 1969 that river burned at least 13 times.

That's something worth remembering — not just that we once let our waterways get that trashed, but also the fact that we've gone a long way towards fixing it. We took 200 years of accumulating sewage and industrial degradation and cleaned it up in the span of a single generation. At Slate, James Salzman writes about that reversal of environmental fortune, a shift so pronounced — and so dependent upon a functioning government in which a diverse spectrum of politicians recognize the importance of investing in our country's future — that it seems damned-near impossible today.

... discharging raw sewage and pollution into our harbors and rivers has been common practice for most of the nation’s history, with devastating results. By the late 1960s, Lake Erie had become so polluted that Time magazine described it as dead. Bacteria levels in the Hudson River were 170 times above the safe limit. I can attest to the state of the Charles River in Boston. While sailing in the 1970s, I capsized and had to be treated by a dermatologist for rashes caused by contact with the germ-laden waters.

Read the rest

The most polluted place in the world

At Grist, Jess Zimmerman has an interesting piece about a lake near a notoriously leaky former Soviet nuclear research site, where the radiation level is so high that an hour on the beach can be enough to kill you.

You can’t really blame Lake Karachay for acting up — it comes from a really rough area. The lake is located within the Mayak Production Association, one of the largest — and leakiest — nuclear facilities in Russia. The Russian government kept Mayak entirely secret until 1990, and it spent that period of invisibility mainly having nuclear meltdowns and dumping waste into the river. By the time Mayak’s existence was officially acknowledged, there had been a 21 percent increase in cancer incidence, a 25 percent increase in birth defects, and a 41 percent increase in leukemia in the surrounding region of Chelyabinsk. The Techa river, which provided water to nearby villages, was so contaminated that up to 65 percent of locals fell ill with radiation sickness — which the doctors termed “special disease,” because as long as the facility was secret, they weren’t allowed to mention radiation in their diagnoses.

Read the rest at Grist Read the rest

Science of L.A.'s 'Carmageddon' proves (shock!) that cars cause much of LA's air pollution

Suzanne Paulson, UCLA professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences, saw "Carmageddon" as an opportunity to make use of a "natural experiment." She and a colleague "measured pollutants in the air during the LA freeway shutdown last year, and have now released their findings.

Air quality near the normally busy highway improved by 83 percent that day last July, relative to comparable weekends. Elsewhere in West Los Angeles, the improvement was equally dramatic. Air quality improved by 75 percent on that side of the city and in Santa Monica, and by 25 percent throughout the entire region, as a measure of the drop in ultrafine particulate matter associated with tailpipe emissions.

"We saw what we expected: you take motor vehicles away, the air gets really, really clean," Paulson says, "which tells us that most of the pollution is from motor vehicles from one type or another in this area."

More: L.A.'s 'Carmageddon' Produced Dramatic, Instantaneous Air Quality Improvements (The Atlantic).

Another "Carmaggedon" just took place in LA. Wonder if there will be more science to come from this edition.

(Image: Dallas Traffic 10/19/11 1227pm, a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike (2.0) image from nffcnnr's photostream) Read the rest

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