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Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Archive for the ‘air pollution’ Category

Film Review “Everybody Flies”

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I have not flown for nearly a year. My last trip was to New Orleans, in January last year. Looking back my usual pattern seems to be about 3 or 4 air trips a year, though in 2019 there was also only one flight as we had resolved to see more of our own province. But I have been on flights when there were odd smells in the cabin. I have not personally experienced a fume event but there are many.

The air in nearly every modern jet plane comes from the engines “bleed air”. The only exception is the Boeing 787 Dreamliner which has a separate, electric powered compressor for cabin air. The air is also recirculated through a HEPA filter which removes things like germs. Unfortunately it is not fine enough to remove smaller particles and that is where the trouble starts. Every jet engine needs lubricant and every can of that lubricant carries a health warning. It contains Tricresyl Phosphate a mixture of three isomeric organophosphate compounds. The “fume events” occur when the bleed air gets contaminated by the leaking lubricant. It can also be contaminated by other fluids. The aircraft industry has known about the issue since the 1950s and has always downplayed it.

Pilots and other aircrew, flying all the time, are much more likely to experience a fume event than passengers – but there are now records of large numbers of events affecting both. Former BA pilot Tristan Lorraine had to give up flying due to ill health and retrained as a filmmaker. “Everybody Flies” is his examination of the increasing amount of evidence that the air in most aircraft is nothing like as safe as the aircraft makers and airlines would have you believe. What he presents in his documentary are the first hand experiences of crew and passengers and their subsequent health issues. There is also quite a lot of independent research now and academics saying things like “if you don’t know what the safe level of exposure is, then it should be zero”. Captain Lorraine is also spokesman for the leading global organisation dealing with the issue of contaminated aircraft cabin air: The Global Cabin Air Quality Executive (GCAQE).

The movie is gripping and the story has an eerie air of familiarity. The aviation industry is following the same playbook as the tobacco and asbestos industries used. Indeed one of the interviewees sounded like me. She had been trying to get her case into a courtroom. After 15 years she had to give up and declare bankruptcy. “They have far more money than I had” so they could spend more on delaying the process. Exactly the same message that lawyers gave me, more than once, when I felt I had a good case and a strong sense of injustice. The lawyers tended to agree that I had a strong case but “they have more money than you do.” Indeed one case was settled against me simply because that was cheaper than fighting it. There are also regulators. Usually government appointed bodies tasked with protecting the public and employees, but who have become entirely captive to the industry they are supposed to regulate. The National Energy Board protects the oil and gas industry and advances its interests, not those of society in general and certainly not the natural environment.

But the aviation industry also has to guard jealously its reputation for promoting safety. That has taken a big hit thanks to Boeing’s handling of the 737 MAX mess. Just as the automobile industry suffered from the VW cheating emissions systems – and the more recent Toyota scandal. Currently they are doing that by pretending that there is not a problem. This position is becoming untenable but has lasted 50+ years so far.

Everybody Flies” is “under consideration” for an Oscar and BAFTA. It already had a standing ovation at the Sundance Festival. Its release to theatres is delayed by COVID. I hope that it shows up on streaming services too. I feel very privileged to have been offered a review link – which, of course, I cannot share. But I do hope that you will get to see it soon. I also hope that you will click on the links I have provided for I am sure that there will be much more bafflegab and distraction before the industry as a whole moves towards acknowledging the problem and installing better air filters. Making a start on that now, while so many commercial aircraft are grounded makes a great deal of sense, but then that is never going to be the industry’s first concern.

Written by Stephen Rees

January 16, 2021 at 12:05 pm

How do you make people in Hope healthier?

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Hope BC aerial

The story comes from Jesse Johnson at the CBC.

Residents have higher rates of chronic disease, are more to likely smoke and their life expectancy is well below the rest of the region.

…lack of access to health services and an aging population both contribute to the problem.

We’re  looking at a population that has moved from the urban areas to the more rural area of Hope in their retirement age to support a lifestyle they are seeking, in terms of outdoor activities.

The article goes on to discuss initiatives the Health Authority is taking to improve access health care services.

But the best thing we can do for the people of Hope – and the rest of the Fraser Valley – is not treatment but prevention. Prevention is always better than cure.

There is currently an air quality advisory in the region due to the fire at Harrison Lake. Not just the smoke but the haze – seen as a white mist over mountains – due to ground level ozone which forms in sunlight due to reactions between pollutants from burned fuels  – VOCs, NOx and SOx. Absent wildfires, these pollutants here are mainly due to the use of fossil fuel fired internal combustion engines in our transportation system. For many years we relied on AirCare to keep that in check, but now we rely on the computers that control our engines. But that is just a bandaid – what we really need to do is reduce the use of cars for most of our transport needs. We aren’t doing badly – in the city of Vancouver half the trips now are taken by noncar modes – walking, cycling and transit. The rest of of the region has been encouraged to increase car use, by widening the freeway and spending heavily on making car use the most favoured mode. Strangling resources for transit was a deliberate provincial policy which, we must now trust, will be reversed.

The air pollutants released by internal combustion engines in Metro Vancouver get blown up the valley by the prevailing winds. As the valley narrows, and the sides get steeper, the concentrations get worse. Air quality concerns are actually fairly low in Vancouver, but are significant in Hope. Telling people to limit their activities and stay indoors helps relieve immediate symptoms – difficulty breathing – but makes other serious health problems worse – heart disease, diabetes, and obesity – the top three killers in our society.  The people who really suffer from bad air quality in the Valley are the agricultural workers who have no choice about strenuous activity outdoors on hot, sunny days.

The more we can be successful in increasing transit mode share, plus walking and cycling, the better the health outcomes will be, and the lower the demands for treatment. The cost benefit analysis for this kind of policy approach seems to  be absent. Our obsessions have been with environmental assessments of major projects, but these have often been deliberately slanted to “reducing congestion” – which is a chimera.

“Adding highway lanes to deal with traffic congestion is like loosening your belt to cure obesity” – Lewis Mumford. (source)

Written by Stephen Rees

July 6, 2017 at 8:20 pm

Air board adopts strict rules on diesel exhaust

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Thanks to reader Andy in Germany for reminding me about this report in the San Francisco Chronicle.

To control exhaust emissions you have to tackle the problem from two directions – the fuel and the engine it is burnt in.  These new rules refer to the engines. And I am here quoting from the CARB Press Release

The Air Resources Board today adopted two critical regulations directly aimed at cleaning up harmful emissions from the estimated one million heavy-duty diesel trucks that operate in California. Beginning January 1, 2011, the Statewide Truck and Bus rule will require truck owners to install diesel exhaust filters on their rigs, with nearly all vehicles upgraded by 2014. Owners must also replace engines older than the 2010 model year according to a staggered implementation schedule that extends from 2012 to 2022.

BC could, if it wanted to, adopt stricter vehicle emission regulations, but it is unlikely to, as the same howl of protest would be heard from the truckers. Exactly why they think their need to make money trumps our need to keep our lungs working properly is probably something that will not get discussed either.

BC is already planning to ensure that children playing in schoolyards are exposed to as much diesel particulate as possible. Of course the EA for the SFPR glossed over the issue – but we do know that exposure to diesel exhaust (which is a human carcinogen) drops off the further you are from the centre line of a highway. With amazing arrogance, the proponents of the SFPR simply ignored the primary schools that are adjacent to, or a block or two away from, the road. They also state that increased health impacts expected to result from the increased truck traffic and its exhaust are also good for the economy since they create more work for our doctors and hospitals.

Under NAFTA, most regulations of this kind are supposed to be coordinated – so that the US, Canada and Mexico have the same set of rules. This is so that trade may be facilitated. It has nothing whatever to do with concerns that the health of the citizens of these countries should be protected. As usual its a race to the bottom. California is to be applauded for taking a principled stand and providing some much needed leadership. Again.

Air board officials estimate that the rule will save the lives of 9,400 people between 2011 and 2025. A related study by UC Berkeley and Harvard researchers concluded that truck drivers and dockworkers who breathe diesel soot on the job have higher rates of lung cancer and death than other workers.

Eventually, the rest of the US and Canada will fall into line, kicking and screaming along the way. That is what has nearly always happened with regulations of this kind since nowhere else has a body quite like CARB.

We used to have a body here called the Lower Fraser Valley Air Quality Advisory Committee that used to discuss these issues. It didn’t make rules – or even press all that hard for new ones. Even that got chopped.

Written by Stephen Rees

December 14, 2008 at 3:22 pm

Posted in air pollution

Spatial variations in estimated chronic exposure to traffic-related air pollution in working populations – A simulation

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7th Space interactive

With a title like that I would be surprised if it gets much attention.

The data comes from Greater Vancouver and the source is “Author: Eleanor M Setton, C. Peter Keller, Denise Cloutier-Fisher and Perry W Hystad : International Journal of Health Geographics 2008, 7:39”

But the main point I want to make is that if there is a real hard nugget of information in all of this, you need to be a scientist to understand it. I re-read it several times with a growing respect for journalists who make a living explaining scientific journal articles to the general public.  I think the message might be that how you get to work is not really significant in terms of pollution exposure (at least in the case of the one pollutant they looked at – nitrogen dioxide) as you spend longer at home and at work than you do in commuting. So we need to be concerned more about air quality at home and work than outside. Which makes me wonder who paid for this research. It is one thing if it is “pure research” – it is quite something else if the money came from an oil company or a car manufacturer.

It is also probably worth noting that if you run Google alerts, you come up with some quite unexpected sources.

Written by Stephen Rees

July 19, 2008 at 8:33 am

Honda rolls out Hydrogen Car

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Globe and Mail

Well you can find it there and many other places. It is actually an agency story from Tokyo.

New Honda Fuel Cell car

It is said to be the first production fuel cell car – but the volumes are going to be very low.

Honda expects to lease out a “few dozen” units this year and about 200 units within a year. In California, a three-year lease will run $600 (U.S.) a month, which includes maintenance and collision coverage.

Among the first customers are actress Jamie Lee Curtis and filmmaker husband Christopher Guest, actress Laura Harris, film producer Ron Yerxa, as well as businessmen Jon Spallino and Jim Salomon.

That’s payback for Arnie’s “hydrogen highway” but really delivers very little apart from column inches. And of course have a real Hollywood star name associated with the new car is good press too. But no-one is expected to go to a showroom and order one. In fact the chances of any ordinary Joe switching away from an SUV to one of these is slim to none.

As the piece points out, how you get the hydrogen determines whether this is a good policy move or not. And in terms of energy use and greenhouse gas emissions in California these may be worse than a hybrid. The lease rates are artificially low too. Honda is charging these to its R&D budget, not making money on them for a long time.

For most people now the big issue is gas prices – not air pollution or greenhouse gas emissions – but their response is actually doing more to reduce both both than any alternative fuel. They are taking transit.

Written by Stephen Rees

June 16, 2008 at 9:40 am

Pollution ‘ups blood clot risk’

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BBC on Harvard School of Public Health Report

Breathing in air pollution from traffic fumes can raise the risk of potentially deadly blood clots, a US study says.

Exposure to small particulates – tiny chemicals caused by burning fossil fuels – is known to increase the chances of heart disease and stroke.

But the Harvard School of Public Health found it also affected development of deep vein thrombosis – blood clots in the legs – in a study of 2,000 people.

Particulates are nasty little things, but their chemistry is horribly complicated and they are difficult to measure and quantify because they are so small. A lot of attention is paid to diesel emissions because they contain small particulates: in fact the number of very small particles has been increasing as the technology to reduce the total weight of emitted particles has been improving. And the smaller the particle the further it can penetrate into the lung. So the links to asthma, lung and heart disease are fairly clear.

What this research does is provide an understanding of how particulates have even wider impacts than we used to think. And these particles may not be directly emitted, but form in the chemical soup that the air we breathe in our car oriented urban areas has become. There are chemical reactions that lead to the creation of more particles as the various pollutants interact with the nitrogen, oxygen and hydrocarbons that are in the air naturally. I have long suspected that more attention was being paid to trucks and buses, because that way car drivers can point the finger elesewhere. In this region, where cars have to pass regular emissions testing (but not, of course basic roadworthiness or safety checks) people believe their cars are clean becuase they have a certificate that tells them so. And every time a heavily loaded bus accelerates away from a stop there is the tell tale plume of smoke. So obviously that convinces the car drivers that air pollution is not their fault.

In truth, of course, the huge volume of vehicles means that the impact of cars as a whole is much greater than the relatively small number of buses and trucks. And while those cars  generally have passed Air Care, they are far from zero emission, and the total volume of emissions is very significant.

What is also not said in the BBC piece, but I think may also be worth looking at is the fact that air quality inside vehicles is usually much worse than the air in general. And many people are inactive, since they are sitting in their vehicles for long periods. Taxi drivers should be concerned. But I would also like to see studies done in North America since the use of diesel cars is much greater in Italy (where this study was done) than it is here.

Written by Stephen Rees

May 13, 2008 at 8:15 am

Posted in air pollution, health

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Panel Finds Link Between Smog and Premature Death

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Hat tip to Cycling Mama on the LRC blog for this New York Times article.

It is about a controversy in the US. The White House has been doing its usual trick of doubting the science that links exposure to low level ozone with morbidity. A bit like they were doing on climate change and greenhouse gas (though they seem to have reversed that one now).

It does not apply here. For example in the SFPR studies there is an acknowledgment that local air pollution will get worse and there will be health effects. What is stunning is the effrontery of the analysis which suggests that as this will increase expenditure on healthcare that will be good for the economy! This is a well known mistake long recognised in cost benefit analysis and known as the “broken window effect”. It stems from people who used to claim that repairing broken windows was economic activity that added growth to the economy. It is, of course, nonsense. What it actually does is divert spending away from other activities that would have lead to an overall improvement in “welfare” . For example, the shopkeeper whose windows were smashed must pay to put them back as they were instead of investing the money in improvements, which would have increased his business.

It is also worth noticing that ozone is the product of emissions – mostly from gasoline powered cars – that react in sunlight. The SFPR will also increase emissions of ultrafine carbon particulates as well – and the health impacts of those are not in doubt. Diesel exhaust is a known human carcinogen – and increased truck traffic near homes and schools guarantees increased exposure to the most vulnerable members of the community – the young and the aged.

At least with the SFPR there is an admission that traffic will increase. Somehow that is not supposed to happen on the Freeway or the Port Mann Bridge. Apparently that will just divert increases in traffic that would occur anyway. And amazingly there are people who believe that – or say they do.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 30, 2008 at 8:39 am

New EPA rules target diesel train and ship emissions

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Los Angeles Times

LA is seen by some here as a competitor west coast gateway. It seems to me that many people there would be quite pleased if we took some more the polltuing ships and trains away from their area. They like polluted air about as much as we do.

I though when I saw the headline that this was a major change but no

Because the new rules will take decades to implement, and do not target large marine vessels, the AQMD will not be able to reach a 2015 federal deadline to bring deadly fine particulate exposure down to legal amounts, Wallerstein said. [That’s Barry Wallerstein, executive officer of the South Coast Air Quality Management District]

Large, ocean-going vessels are linked to about 800 premature deaths in the region each year. More than 40% of all retail goods shipped to the U.S. come through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

The hope for us is that we will follow suit to ensure that the we get the benefit from the new technologies that will now get built into locomotives and tugs. Otherwise what will happen is that our operators will just shift the old equipment up here. Railway locomotives in particular have very long lives and many in daily service here have been around in one shape or form since the 1950s. Of course, they have been rebuilt and refurbished in the meantime. Even the cleanest Green Goats are not entirely new.

CN1419 New Westminster BC 2007_0928

This loco was first built in 1959 and is still in operation

Written by Stephen Rees

March 16, 2008 at 7:57 am

Pollution ‘alters brain function’

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BBC News

An hour sniffing exhaust fumes may not just give you a headache – it could even alter the way the brain functions, Dutch researchers have suggested.

Scientists have known nanoparticles reach the brain when inhaled, but this is the first time they have been shown to affect how we process information.

Researchers sought to replicate the environment experienced by those who work in a garage or by the roadside.

Their findings were published in the journal Particle and Fibre Toxicology.

There’s more of course, but there are big ethical problems with studying human brains and exposes people to toxins. We know that these nanoparticles penetrate deep into the lungs. Indeed it has been suggested that modern diesel engines may be cleaner in terms of the weight of particles they produce, but the particles could be smaller and hemce more numerous, and also more dangerous, as a rsult of some of the engine management techniques used.

It is also the case that although the study showed a “stress reaction” it is not clear what the long term effects might be. I imagine that humans have evolved self preservation mechanisms that warn them of fire when they smell smoke, but we also associate smoke with warmth, comfort, fun and barbecues. People love the smell of woodsmoke, but we also know that it can be very harmful. Likewise tobacco and other smoking materials.

It might also explain the brain dead behaviour of so many road users who appear to be totally oblivious to the risks they run and that they expose others too.

Written by Stephen Rees

March 11, 2008 at 8:42 am

Posted in air pollution

Victoria’s message to B.C. on health, climate: it’s up to you

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Vancouver Sun

Not entirely, Mr Campbell. Your government needs to play its part too. Because your government is laying the groundwork for the development of BC for the next generation. And so far that seems to be “business as usual”.

The announcement I wanted to see was that the Gateway Program would be cancelled immediately. The UN’s International Panel on Climate Change has recently revealed that its estimates for pollution from ships need to be tripled. That is not just greenhouse gas emissions, it also the emissions that threaten the health of the residents of the Lower Fraser Valley. Environment Canada and Health Canada have both recently informed you, in response to the Environmental Assessment of the Port Mann Bridge Twinning and Highway #1 widening, that the estimates for future pollution and greenhouse gas emissions were “misleading”. That is because the demand forecast chose to ignore the impact of this development on both land use and induced traffic.

There will be another million or so people moving to the Lower Mainland in the next twenty years. You have made long term “promises” to provide them with transit after they arrive. This will not change the pattern of development or their chosen means of travel. We have to provide transit to the fastest growing areas of the province now and not leave it until after the freeway has been widened. Because the developers are already moving to build more car oriented sprawl – just as they always have done in areas which have little or no transit provision. And no one would expect them to do otherwise. LiveSmart BC, aimed at containing urban sprawl and rewarding green developments, will not work unless it incorporates transit from the start – not as a possible add on later, which is what your recent transit announcement proposed. This also means you have to change your priorities. Not just cancelling all of the Gateway, but also the underground line to UBC. Because growth is not going to happen as much in your constituency (Vancouver, Point Grey) and that money will be much better spent on shaping the much greater growth in Langley, Surrey and Abbotsford.

People can only make choices from what they have been offered, and for too many people their transportation choices are still too limited despite a regional growth strategy that you wrote when Chair of the GVRD that said it should have been increased by now. Building more freeways now and promising that transit will come later is just Not Good Enough.


The above has been sent as an email to both the Premier and a letter for publication to the Editor of the Sun

UPDATE February 14

Of course it was not published in the Sun. And no doubt I will get the same form letter back from the MoT in due course.

Written by Stephen Rees

February 13, 2008 at 12:32 pm