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For the past 12 hours, the so-called PM2.5 level (or China’s new pollution threshold) has been above the “serious” level. Bear in mind this is the newly adjusted-upwards threshold that already far exceeds the WHO’s health-threatening levels.
- BEIJING WARNS RESIDENTS TO AVOID OUTDOOR ACTIVITIES ON SMOG
- BEIJING MONITORING CENTER REPORTS `SERIOUS’ AIR POLLUTION TODAY
Levels are officially “beyond index” today (with a peak at 613 so far compred to 500 “hazardous”) and the streets are empty!
City’s air quality index reading near Tiananmen Square, putting it in category defined as “serious” pollution.
City warns residents to avoid outdoor activities
Reading of PM2.5 pollution near Tiananmen Square was 583 micrograms per cubic meter as of 6 a.m., with average reading in past 24 hours at 338, according to city’s air-monitoring website
NOTE: World Health Organization recommends 24-hour PM2.5 exposure of no more than 25
The widely followed @BeijingAir twitter account confirms just how bad it is on the ground. For those confused “Beyond Index” is a friendlier way of saying “Off The Charts”
Beijing’s pollution beyond index at 600. Looks like no one wants to venture out in this. pic.twitter.com/jCbceuPH27
— Neela Eyunni (@neelaeyunni) January 15, 2014
Prime Minister David Cameron will give millions of pounds to local authorities that allow shale gas developments to go ahead, part of a drive to create more jobs and encourage investment in the U.K.
Councils will be allowed to keep 100 percent of the business rates they collect from shale gas sites, double the current 50 percent figure, in a move that may be worth 1.7 million pounds ($2.8 million) per site in central government funding per year, according to figures released by Cameron’s office. Business rates are taxes to help pay for local services, charged on most non-domestic properties.
“That’s going to be quite a significant boost for that local council’s coffers,” Business MinisterMichael Fallon told the BBC. “We want local councils and local people to benefit from this exploration. We expect 20-40 wells to be drilled in exploration over the next couple of years.”
Research by business lobby group The Institute of Directors showed investment could reach 3.7 billion pounds a year and support 74,000 jobs in the oil, gas, construction, engineering and chemicals industries, Cameron’s office said. It also said the industry will make proposals today on how best to secure a role for British companies in the supply chain as shale gas production develops in the U.K.
“A key part of our long-term economic plan to secure Britain’s future is to back businesses with better infrastructure,” Cameron said in an e-mailed statement. “That’s why we’re going all out for shale. It will mean more jobs and opportunities for people and economic security for our country.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Kitty Donaldson in London firstname.lastname@example.org
By now you’ve likely heard that the U.S. is expected to overtake Russia this year as the world’s biggest producer of oil and gas. The surge in production comes from a drilling boom enabled by using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, along with, in many places, horizontal drilling. These technologies have made previously inaccessible pockets of oil and gas in shale formations profitable.
But at what cost? Accidents, fatalities and health concerns are mounting. Here’s a look at what we’ve learned about the dangers of fracking in the last few weeks.
1. Exploding Trains
Another day, another oil train accident, it seems. On the night of January 7, a traincarrying crude oil and propane derailed near Plaster Rock in New Brunswick, Canada. A day later the fire continued as locals evacuated, unsure if they were being exposed to toxic fumes.
It’s a familiar story. 2013 went out with a bang in North Dakota when a train carrying crude oil from the Bakken shale derailed and exploded on Dec 30. The ensuing fireballs and toxic smoke caused the evacuation many of Casselton’s 2,300 residents.
Fracking has unleashed a firestorm of drilling in the Bakken (a rock formation under parts of North Dakota, Montana and Saskatchewan). The Casselton accident was the third rail accident in six months in North America involving oil trains from the Bakken (it’s unclear if the Plaster Rock train was carrying Bakken oil). The most horrific was the July derailment and explosion of a train that killed 47 people in the small town of Lac-Megantic in Quebec. The second occurred in Alabama in November.
All of this has grabbed the attention of the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. “Crude oil produced in North America’s booming Bakken region may be more flammable and therefore more dangerous to ship by rail than crude from other areas, a U.S. regulator said after studying the question for four months,” wrote Angela Greiling Keane and Mark Drajem for Bloomberg.
That doesn’t mean shipments will stop, only that trains may be relabeled to say they are carrying a more hazardous cargo.
As Gordon Hoekstra wrote for the Vancouver Sun:
The significant increase in the transport of oil by rail, and the growing evidence that Bakken shale oil is proving itself to be a very explosive commodity, shows that regulations on both sides of the border are not adequate, said Mark Winfield, an associate professor at York University who researches public safety regulation.
Even Robert Harms, who heads North Dakota’s Republican party and consults with the industry, has called for a slowdown, according to Reuters.
2. Workers at Risk
Those who live along train routes aren’t the only ones facing safety risks from the oil and gas industry. NPR reports that accidents among workers in the industry are on the rise—bigtime. From 2009 to 2012 the industry added 23 percent more workers but “the hiring spree has come with a terrible price: Last year, 138 workers were killed on the job — an increase of more than 100 percent since 2009,” wrote Andrew Schneider and Marilyn Geewax for NPR . “In fact, the fatality rate among oil and gas workers is now nearly eight times higher than the all-industry rate of 3.2 deaths for every 100,000 workers.”
Last July, I visited a well pad in New Milton, West Virginia. The following day there was an explosion at the site injuring several workers, two of whom died from their injuries. In my time in West Virginia I met several workers on other sites who were bleary-eyed from long hours on the job.
Sure, jobs are good, but safe jobs should be a priority. Accidents happen in a dangerous industry, but they also increase when workers are kept on the job for too many hours or lack proper training or industry doesn’t follow safe practices.
3. The Accidents You Don’t Hear About
Trains bursting into flames usually (and rightfully) makes the national headlines—especially when fatalities occur. But smaller accidents happen daily that often fail to make it beyond local reporting, if that. Those who live in communities adjacent to the oilfields and gaslands keep their own tallies.
In Tyler County, West Virginia on January 2 an incident occurred on the Lisby natural gas well pad. The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection press release said, “A tank ruptured and leaked fluids to surrounding grounds on the well site.”
“Ruptured and leaked” may be accurate, but more than an understatement. A tank filled with fracking fluid (although the WVDEP hasn’t been able to say for sure what exactly was in it) ignited and ended up across the well pad. “What we’ve been able to determine is that a tank ruptured during the flushing of frac lines,” said Thomas Aluise, spokesperson for the WVDEP. “Vapors formed from the fluids inside the tank and were somehow ignited, possibly by static electricity, but that has not been confirmed. As a result of the ignition and subsequent rupture, the tank was dislodged from its foundation.”
Does this photo look like the tank simply “dislodged?”
The tank held 50 barrels of fluid, some of which has leaked into soil, a neighboring property, and potentially into a nearby stream. The explosion happened 625 feet from the nearest house and one person at the site, a contractor who broke his ankle, was injured in the incident. The company, Jay-Bee Oil & Gas, is required to submit plans for soil and water sampling by January 14, which seems like quite a while to wait to take samples if chemicals are leaking into the ground or water sources.
Jay-Bee does not have a glowing corporate record. “The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has cited the company for 21 environmental violations since 2010, and the federal Occupation Safety and Health Administration has cited the company for 38 worker safety violations, “ wrote Gayathri Vaidyanathan for E&E. “The incident suggests that environmental and worker safety violations often go hand in hand.”
How many environmental and safety violations does it take before a company is shut down?
Accidents like this are common across oil and gas country. So are compressor station fires in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Wyoming. Or truck accidents, as Food and Water Watch reports: “Heavy-truck crashes rose 7.2 percent in heavily fracked rural Pennsylvania counties (with at least one well for every 15 square miles) but fell 12.4 in unfracked rural counties after fracking began in 2005.”
The Centers for Disease Control reported that the top cause of fatalities in the oil and gas industry are motor vehicle accidents. “[W]orkers drive long distances on rural highways to travel to well sites. Often these roads lack firm shoulders and other safety features,” the agency reports. This puts not just workers at risk, but everyone on the road.
All these incidences won’t make national news, but collectively they add up for the residents who live nearby who may fear for their safety while on the roads or in their own homes.
4. Not So Good for Your Health
Findings presented at a recent meeting of the American Economic Association by researchers from Princeton University, Columbia University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology have made headlines. The researchers “looked at Pennsylvania birth records from 2004 to 2011 to assess the health of infants born within a 2.5-kilometer radius of natural-gas fracking sites,” reports Mark Whitehouse for Bloomberg.
“They found that proximity to fracking increased the likelihood of low birth weight by more than half, from about 5.6 percent to more than 9 percent,” writesWhitehouse. “The chances of a low Apgar score, a summary measure of the health of newborn children, roughly doubled, to more than 5 percent.”
The study has yet to be peer-reviewed, so let’s see how it fares. It does not implicate drinking water, however. The most likely culprit is air pollution. Oil and gas operations have been found to release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides, which contribute to ground-level ozone.
So far no communities where fracking is occurring have done a comprehensive health assessment to see how residents may be at risk from activities related to increased oil and gas drilling. Is it time yet?
Roadside pollution worsened in Hong Kong’s Central district last year as vehicular emissions helped send nitrogen dioxide concentrations to near-record levels, an environmental advocacy group said.
Citywide levels of the pollutant, linked to damaged lung function, were the second-highest on record, according to Clean Air Network Ltd.. Particulate matter levels at all monitoring stations exceeded World Health Organization guidelines by two to three times, the group said in a report yesterday.
Hong Kong’s legislators yesterday approved HK$11.4 billion ($1.5 billion) in funding to replace old diesel vehicles. Aging buses and trucks have led to a worsening in air quality since 2007. Nitrogen dioxide levels are getting worse because of local emissions, rather than from China’s Pearl River Delta region, the environmental group said.
“As you can see from the air quality in 2013, end-of-pipe solutions are not enough considering the time it takes,” Sum Yin-Kwong, chief executive officer of Clean Air Network, said in a statement. “To speed up the improvement in air quality, we hope to see the government look into the problem from a comprehensive transport management perspective in this year’s policy address.”
The city will use the approved subsidies to phase out 82,000 pre-Euro IV diesel commercial vehicles in a program that will begin on March 1, according to an e-mailed government statement citing the Environmental Protection Department. The plan should lead to a cut in levels of respirable suspended particulates and nitrogen oxides by 80 percent and 30 percent respectively, the department said.
Hong Kong has three roadside pollution monitoring stations in the busy districts of Central,Mong Kok and Causeway Bay. The Central monitor, sandwiched between the Asian headquarters of JPMorgan Chase & Co. and a Tiffany & Co. outlet, recorded nitrogen dioxide concentration levels of 126 micrograms per cubic meter last year, according to the environmental group report.
The Central roadside gauge stood at 6, the highest level in the “moderate” health risk range, at 3 p.m. today. The reading at the Causeway Bay roadside station, located in a busy shopping area, hit 7, considered to pose a high health risk, according to data posted on the department’s website.
Hong Kong introduced an air quality index on Dec. 30 pegged to pollution-induced hospital admission risks. Readings on the index are calculated based on health risks from inhaling concentrations of ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter. Air pollution in the city contributed to 3,183 premature deaths last year, according to the group.
To contact the reporter on this story: Natasha Khan in Hong Kong at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Hwee Ann Tan at firstname.lastname@example.org
Mercury levels have risen to 16 times the regional “background” levels in an area around oilsands developments in northeastern Alberta, according to Environment Canada researchers.
Environment Canada researcher Jane Kirk, who presented the as-yet unpublished report at a Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) conference in Nashville last November, told Postmedia News the affected area encompasses 19,000 square kilometres around oilsands operations.
Margaret Munro of Postmedia News reports that Kirk told the conference the area is “currently impacted by airborne Hg (mercury) emissions originating from oilsands developments.”
The mercury levels fall off gradually with increasing distance from the oilsands “like a bull’s eye,” said co-researcher Derek Muir, head of Environment Canada’s ecosystem contaminants dynamics section. The highest mercury loadings, which reached up to 1,000 nanograms per square metre, were found in the “middle of the bull’s eye,” covering around 10 percent of the impacted area.
In October, Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq signed a global treaty pledging to decrease mercury emissions.
The federal researchers stressed that the findings were still lower than mercury levels found in southern Ontario and southern Quebec, where toxins from incinerators and coal-burning power plants are affecting the environment.
But the scientists said that mercury is “the number one concern” when looking at toxins released by oilsands production, with “indications that the toxin is building up in some of the region’s wildlife.” The contamination is further worrying to environmental groups and First Nations concerned about the oilsands’ impact on fishing, hunting and wildlife.
Environment Canada wildlife scientist Craig Herbert told the toxicology conference that the eggs of several species of waterbirds downstream of the oilsands have been showing increasing levels of mercury, with levels found in the majority of Caspian Tern eggs in 2012 exceeding “the lower toxicity threshold.”
Kirk’s team measured contaminants in cores of the snowpack collected from over 100 sites near the oilsands every March, to calculate how much pollution enters the ecosystem at spring melt after gathering in snow over winter.
The team’s 2011 results confirmed that “aerial loadings” of 13 priority pollutant elements including mercury were 13 to 15 times higher at sites within 50 km of the upgraders that convert bitumen into synthetic crude oil, and “highest within 10 km of the upgraders,” according to the presentation abstract.
The results “support earlier findings that the bitumen upgraders and local Oil Sands development are sources of airborne emissions to the Alberta Oil Sands Region.”
The researchers also found up to 19 nanograms of methyl mercury per square metre near oilsands sites, which is 16 times the region’s background level. Postmedia News reports that this is the first finding of this more toxic form of mercury in snow. The finding is significant because, as the abstract explains, “methyl mercury is a neurotoxin that bioaccumulates through foodwebs.”
“Here we have a direct source of methyl mercury being emitted in this region and deposited to the landscapes and water bodies,” Kirk told Postmedia News. “So come snowmelt that methyl mercury is now going to enter lakes and rivers where potentially it could be taken up directly by organisms and then bioaccumulated and biomagnified though food webs.”
Muir said that microbes in the snow could be converting mercury into methyl mercury, or that it could be coming from “dust and land disturbances,” though there is currently no data to support this.
“To our knowledge, emissions data from blowing dusts due to various landscape disturbances (open pit mines, exposed coke piles, new roads, etc.) and volatilization from tailing ponds are not publicly available,” the researchers said.
The research shows that zinc, nickel and vanadium levels in lake sediments peaked in the 1990s following oilsands development, but have fallen off since, which Kirk attributes to “improvements in the air pollution catcher technology at the upgraders.”
But levels of mercury and other “crustal elements” in lake sediments have been “going up more or less continually” with the expansion of the oilsands, said Muir, with open pit mines and coke piles possibly contributing to the pollution.
The fact remains that more research is required on why mercury levels are going up and the impact it’s having on ecosystems.
“Is it affecting fish levels and is it going to result in increasing fish consumption advisories? We don’t know,” said Kirk.
But Environment Canada’s latest results only confirm the need to further study and address the serious impacts of oilsands development.
Residents of this city woke on Wednesday to a third day of thick gray smog which has disrupted dozens of flights and train services and caused a rash of health complaints. As Reuters reports, the toxic levels of pollution, fuelled by industrial growth a surge in the numbers of vehicles crowding their roads, are more than 7x what the nation deems safe and what the US EPA calls “hazardous”. But it’s not in China…
If you don’t like the frequency of your air-quality alerts, you don’t have to keep them. That is the message that the Chinese government has made loud and clear as Bloomberg reports, Shanghai’s environmental authority took decisive action to address the pollution – it cynically adjusted the threshold for “alerts” to ensure there won’t be so many. In a move remininscent of Japan’s raising of the “safe” radioactive threshold level, China has apparently decided – rather than accept responsibility for the disaster – to avoid it by making the “safe” pollution level over 50% more polluted (up from 75 to 115 micrograms per cubic meter) – almost 5 times the WHO’s “safe” level of 25 micrograms.
As the smog that has choked Shanghai for much of the last week reached hazardous levels, the city’s environmental authority took decisive action to address the frequent air-quality alerts: It adjusted standards downward to ensure that there won’t be so many.
It was a cynical move, surely made to protect the bureau’s image in the face of unrelenting pollution that only seems to grow worse, despite government promises to address it.At this advanced stage in China’s development, nobody in the country (or elsewhere) — not even the loyal state news media — seems to believe that the problem is solvable, at least not any time soon. Even worse, nobody — not the state and certainly not the growing number of middle-class consumers (and car buyers) — seems ready to take responsibility for the mess.
If you can’t fix it, you might as well try to avoid responsibility for it, the thinking seems to go. It therefore comes as no surprise that Shanghai’s Environmental Protection Bureau decided to lower the benchmark for alerting the public about pollution risks. It will now issue alerts only when the concentration of the most dangerous particulates in the city’s air, known asPM2.5 (particulates smaller than 2.5 micometers in diameter) reach 115 micrograms per cubic meter. The previous standard was 75 micrograms per cubic meter. (The World Health Organization recommends not exceeding 25 micrograms per cubic meter in a 24-hour period.)
The state-owned English-language China Daily explained the decision in tone that almost obscured the absurdity of the maneuver: “The bureau said it believes the original standard is too strict, given that haze is common in the Yangtze River Delta region in winter.”
“On social networks like Weibo and Wechat, Beijingers now show photos of blue skies and white clouds as if they’re on vacation.” This show-off behavior left a bad taste, he concedes, before concluding with a final sentence that ought to serve as a rallying cry in China: “I really hope that someday people will resume reacting to blue skies and white clouds in a ‘normal’ manner.”
That’s a hope that probably won’t be fulfilled in this decade or even the next.
Outdoor air pollution is a leading cause of cancer in humans, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an arm of the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The IARC said on Thursday that a panel of top experts had found “sufficient evidence” that exposure to outdoor air pollution caused lung cancer and raised the risk of bladder cancer.
The predominant sources of outdoor air pollution were transport, power generation, emissions from factories and farms, and residential heating and cooking, the UN agency said.
The most recent data, from 2010, showed that 223,000 lung cancer deaths worldwide were the result of air pollution, the report said.
“Our task was to evaluate the air everyone breathes rather than focus on specific air pollutants,” said the IARC’s Dana Loomis.
“The results from the reviewed studies point in the same direction: the risk of developing lung cancer is significantly increased in people exposed to air pollution,” he added.
Although the composition of air pollution and levels of exposure can vary dramatically between locations, the agency said its conclusions applied to all regions of the globe.
It said pollution exposure levels increased significantly in some parts of the world in recent years, notably in rapidly industrialising nations with large populations.
The latest findings were based on overall air quality, and based on an in-depth study of thousands of medical research projects conducted around the world over decades.
Air pollution was already known to increase the risk of respiratory and heart diseases.
“Classifying outdoor air pollution as carcinogenic to humans is an important step,” said the IARC’s director Christopher Wild.
“There are effective ways to reduce air pollution and, given the scale of the exposure affecting people worldwide, this report should send a strong signal to the international community to take action without further delay.”
The data did not enable experts to establish whether particular groups of people were more or less vulnerable to cancer from pollution, but Kurt Straif of IARC said it was clear that risk rose in line with exposure.
Diesel exhaust and what is known as “particulate matter” – which includes soot – have been classified as carcinogenic by the IARC.
The IARC said that it was set to publish its in-depth conclusions on October 24 on the specialised website The Lancet Oncology.
- Air pollution causes cancer, WHO concludes (telegraph.co.uk)
- Outdoor air pollution is a cancer cause (skynews.com.au)
- Outdoor pollution is carcinogenic: WHO (thehindu.com)
China started re-opening roads and airports in Beijing and surrounding areas that have been shut by record high levels of smog. An estimated 430 million people were expected to travel during the holiday that ends today and with the air quality index “improving” from its highest possible level to below 200 (the line between heavy and medium pollution), some will be able to return home. The clips below are stunning (and no that is not ‘fog’); summed up best by one Shanghai-based accountant that Bloomberg reportsnoted, “I won’t go to heavily polluted places like China’s north region as it’s either hazardous to your health or causes trouble when traveling.”…
- Beijing Smog Closes Highways as Travelers Return After Holiday (bloomberg.com)
- Hazardous smog chokes Beijing’s big sporting weekend (edition.cnn.com)
- Third Day of Serious Smog in Beijing Forces Highway Closures (voanews.com)