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The Return of Air Quality

eiffel_towerAside from China, which got quite a showcase during the Olympics, the topic of air quality has percolated quietly in the background for years. It was the environmental issue during the late 1960s and concerns about it led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (1970) and the first revisions to the 1962 Clean Air Act (in 1970 and 1977). The Clean Water Act followed in 1972 – not about air quality, of course, but part of this wave of environmental consciousness.

These issues have never gone away, though they did slide into neglect as rain forests, recycling and climate change captured the public imagination. With a number of new reports focusing on the dire impacts of climate change, it would seem of a piece if heightened concern about air quality should return to the fore.

But if it is going to return, it needs a spur - a book, a movie – maybe a database.

Because that’s what it got. The World Health Organization has chosen this moment to update (and promote) its urban ambient air quality database.

The WHO database covers 1600 cities across 91 countries – 500 more cities than the previous database (2011), revealing that more cities worldwide are monitoring outdoor air quality, reflecting growing recognition of air pollution’s health risks.

According to the database, only 12 per cent of the people living in cities reporting on air quality reside in cities where that air quality complied with WHO guideline levels. About half of the urban population being monitored is exposed to air pollution that is at least 2.5 times higher than the levels WHO recommends - putting those people at additional risk of serious, long-term health problems.

What’s sad is that the reason this may bring the issue back to the fore is that the news embedded in that database is alarming. And alarming always plays better, doesn’t it?

From The Times of India:

A day after World Health Organization's latest urban air quality database showed that Delhi has the worst air quality among 1,600 cities in 91 countries, government officials chose to split hairs over the published numbers while environmentalists stressed that the country should get on with addressing air quality concerns urgently.

From The Guardian:

British towns and cities have been named and shamed by the World Health Organization for breaching safety levels for air pollution.

Nine urban areas in the UK have been named by the global health body for breaching safe health levels of air quality.

From The New Zealand Herald:

A new global report on air quality has featured 17 New Zealand centers among 1600 worldwide cities, with Timaru, Christchurch and Rotorua turning in the poorest national results for air pollution. [New Zealand actually did pretty well.]

This is where we should be talking about the manifest contribution nuclear energy can make to mitigate bad air – and it’s true, it can. It doesn’t burn fossil fuel and has no negative impact on air quality at all. The same can be said of renewable energy and hydro power. Still, while this is a problem on which nuclear energy can have an impact, it’s not enough in itself.

From Le Monde:

Le seuil maximum fixé par l'OMS est de 20 microgrammes par mètre cube (µg/m3) pour la concentration moyenne annuelle de particules fines PM10 (d'un diamètre égal ou inférieur à 10 micromètres) dans l'air. Il est largement dépassé dans de nombreuses grandes métropoles. Avec des records beaucoup plus élevés que ceux enregistrés, par exemple, lors des récents pics de pollution à Paris, en mars 2014 (100 µg/m3).

Rough translation (by me –very rough indeed):

The maximum threshold set by WHO is 20 micrograms per cubic meter (ug/m3) for an average annual concentration of PM10 (diameter less than or equal to 10 micrometers) in the air. It is widely exceeded in many major cities. Much higher numbers were reached locally, for example, during recent pollution peaks in Paris in March 2014 (100 ug/m3).

Paris banned cars every other day during a couple of weeks last year. Nuclear energy makes a real difference, but in “driving” cities like Paris, you wouldn’t know it. We’ve mentioned before that nuclear energy and electric/hybrid cars are a killer combination and this is why.

The U.N. makes a few mild comments on potential solutions:

Some cities are making notable improvements - demonstrating that air quality can be improved by implementing policy measures such as banning the use of coal for “space heating” in buildings, using renewable or “clean” fuels for electricity production, and improving efficiency of motor vehicle engines.

“We can win the fight against air pollution and reduce the number of people suffering from respiratory and heart disease, as well as lung cancer,” said Dr. Maria Neira, WHO Director for Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health.

And that means air quality may become a generally discussable issue again. That would be for the good – for nuclear energy, certainly, and for the world.

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