When breathing is expensive

By Luiza Toledo, IIASA Science Communication Fellow 2019

2019 YSSP participant Muye Ru investigates the main health impacts of air pollution and what this means for the economy and social development of a country.

© Sabelskaya | Dreamstime.com

Air pollution is one of the greatest environmental health risks of our time. It is the second most common cause of non-communicable diseases like stroke, cancer, and heart disease, and it annually leads to around seven million premature deaths.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), almost 90% of people worldwide breathe polluted air. Even though we can say that air pollution is impartial, affecting people regardless of gender, race, social class, or economic status, the burden of ill health caused by air pollution primarily affects middle and low-income cities and marginalized populations. The economic cost of air pollution and its impacts on health is known as non-market costs and includes the monetized welfare costs of mortality (premature deaths), and of the disutility of illness (pain and suffering).

Muye Ru, YSSP participant. © Ru

Muye Ru, a 2019 Young Scientist Summer Program (YSSP) participant, is studying the main health impacts of air pollution and what this means for the economy and social development of a country. Her project will establish a methodology based on meta-analysis, to estimate the economic costs of selected morbidity outcomes of exposure to air pollution in a population, and test its application at various geographical scales (national, regional, and global).

“The idea behind my work is that bad air quality causes a burden for societies. We know that many people will die or be disabled because of it, but we don’t have a very good understanding of exactly what the social and economic cost of that is,” explains Ru.

It is easy to grasp that the burden of sick and disabled people will affect the economy of a country. For example, imagine a scenario where a family member is diagnosed with lung cancer. The illness will most probably influence the entire family in terms of loss of income when the person is unable to work due to his/her illness, or reduced funds available for savings and necessities like food and utilities due to the cost of treatment.

Ru’s project specifically focuses on the rate and duration of air pollution related-diseases in populations. According to her, this rate is extremely important once you start studying the high economic losses and social disturbances caused by illness and healthcare expenditures.

“It’s about how people are disabled, the effect of this burden on their lives, as well as how these changes in their lives are impacting the economy,” she says.

Ru hopes that her work will be useful to policymakers in creating and applying policies to combat air pollution that will lead to multiple benefits for the economy, the environment, and human health. She wants her research to make people more aware of how they are contributing to air pollution and how the cost of it affects everyone’s lives.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

5 years of Vietnam membership at IIASA

Tran Thi Vo-Quyen, IIASA guest research scholar from the Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology (VAST), talks to Professor Dr. Ninh Khac Ban, Director General of the International Cooperation Department at VAST and IIASA council member for Vietnam, about achievements and challenges that Vietnam has faced in the last 5 years, and how IIASA research will help Vietnam and VAST in the future.

Professor Dr. Ninh Khac Ban, Director General of the International Cooperation Department at VAST and IIASA council member for Vietnam

What have been the highlights of Vietnam-IIASA membership until now?

In 2017, IIASA and VAST researchers started working on a joint project to support air pollution management in the Hanoi region which ultimately led to the successful development of the IIASA Greenhouse Gas – Air  Pollution Interactions and Synergies (GAINS) model for the Hanoi region. The success of the project will contribute to a system for forecasting the changing trend of air pollution and will help local policy makers develop cost effective policy and management plans for improving air quality, in particular, in Hanoi and more widely in Vietnam.

IIASA capacity building programs have also been successful for Vietnam, with a participant of the 2017 Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) becoming a key coordinator of the GAINS project. VAST has also benefited from two members of its International Cooperation Department visiting the IIASA External Relations Department for a period of 3 months in 2018 and 2019, to learn about how IIASA deals with its National Member Organizations (NMOs) and to assist IIASA in developing its activities with Vietnam.

What do you think will be the key scientific challenges to face Vietnam in the next few years? And how do you envision IIASA helping Vietnam to tackle these? 

In the global context Vietnam is facing many challenges relating to climate change, energy issues and environmental pollution, which will continue in the coming years. IIASA can help key members of Vietnam’s scientific community to build specific scenarios, access in-depth knowledge and obtain global data that will help them advise Vietnamese government officials on how best they can overcome the negative impact of these issues.

As Director General of the International Cooperation Department, can you explain your role in VAST and as representative to IIASA in a little more detail?

In leading the International Cooperation Department at VAST, I coordinate all collaborative science and technology activities between VAST and more than 50 international partner institutions that collaborate with VAST.

As the IIASA council representative for Vietnam, I participate in the biannual meeting for the IIASA council, I was also a member of the recent task force developed to implement the recommendations of a recent independent review of the institute. I was involved in consulting on the future strategies, organizational structure, NMO value proposition and need to improve the management system of IIASA.

In Vietnam, I advised on the establishment of a Vietnam network for joining IIASA and I implement IIASA-Vietnam activities, coordinating with other IIASA NMOs to ensure Vietnam is well represented in their countries.

You mentioned the development of the Vietnam-IIASA GAINS Model. Can you explain why this was so important to Vietnam and how it is helping to improve air quality and shape Vietnamese policy around air pollution? 

Air pollution levels in Vietnam in the last years has had an adverse effect on public health and has caused significant environmental degradation, including greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, undermining the potential for sustainable socioeconomic development of the country and impacting the poor. It was important for Vietnam to use IIASA researchers’ expertise and models to help them improve the current situation, and to help Vietnam in developing the scientific infrastructure for a long-lasting science-policy interface for air quality management.

The project is helping Vietnamese researchers in a number of ways, including helping us to develop a multi-disciplinary research community in Vietnam on integrated air quality management, and in providing local decision makers with the capacity to develop cost-effective management plans for the Hanoi metropolitan area and surrounding regions and, in the longer-term, the whole of Vietnam.

About VAST and Ninh Khac Ban

VAST was established in 1975 by the Vietnamese government to carry out basic research in natural sciences and to provide objective grounds for science and technology management, for shaping policies, strategies and plans for socio-economic development in Vietnam. Ninh Khac Ban obtained his PhD in Biology from VAST’s Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources in 2001. He has managed several large research projects as a principal advisor, including several multinational joint research projects. His successful academic career has led to the publication of more than 34 international articles with a high ranking, and more than 60 national articles, and 2 registered patents. He has supervised 5 master’s and 9 PhD level students successfully to graduation and has contributed to pedagogical texts for postgraduate training in his field of expertise. 

Notes:
More information on IIASA and Vietnam collaborations. This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Cooking with clean fuel to save lives

© | Shutterstock

By Sandra Ortellado, IIASA Science Communication Fellow

When it comes to home cooking in rural India, health, behavior, and technology are essential ingredients.

Consider the government’s three-year campaign to reduce the damaging impacts of solid fuels traditionally used in rural households below the poverty line.

Initiated by the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas, a program called Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (Ujjwala) aims to safeguard the health of women and children by providing them access to a clean cooking fuel, liquid petroleum gas (LPG), so that they don’t have to compromise their health in smoky kitchens or wander in unsafe areas collecting firewood.

According to the World Health Organization, smoke inhaled by women and children from unclean fuel is equivalent to burning 400 cigarettes in an hour.

Nevertheless, an estimated 700 million people in India still rely on solid fuels and traditional cooking stoves in their homes. A subsidy of Rs. 1600 (US $23.47) and an interest free loan attempts to offset the discouraging cost of the upfront security deposit, the stove, and the first bottle of LPG, but this measure hasn’t been able to change habits on its own.

Why? Although the government has made an overwhelming effort to increase access, interconnected factors like cultural norms, economic trade-offs, and convenience require an in-depth analysis of human behavior and decision-making.

Abhishek Kar, 2018 YSSP participant ©IIASA

That’s why Abhishek Kar, a researcher in the IIASA Energy Program and a participant in the 2018 Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP), has designed a study to explore how rural households make choices about access and usage. Borrowing from behavior change and technology adoption theories, he wants to know whether low-cost access is enough incentive for Ujjwala beneficiaries to match the general rural consumption trends, and more importantly, how to translate public perception into a behavior change.

“I think it’s really important to look into the behavioral aspect,” said Kar in an interview. “If you ask someone if they think clean cooking is wise they may say yes, but if you say do you think it is appropriate for you? The moment it becomes personalized the answers can vary.”

Kar knows that although more than 41 million LPG connections have been installed, installment of the connection does not necessarily equate to use. By gathering data on LPG refill purchases and trends, along with surveys that identify biases in the public’s perception, he wants to know how to convince rural BPL households to maintain the habit of using LPG regularly, even under adverse conditions like price hikes. If LPG is used only sporadically, LPG ownership won’t significantly reduce risk for some household air pollution (HAP)-linked deadly diseases, like lower respiratory infections and stroke.

Unfortunately, even the substantial efforts the government has made to improve LPG supply has not changed the public’s perception of its accessibility in the long term, nor its consumption patterns in the first two years. At least four LPG refills per year would be needed for a family of five to use LPG as a primary cooking fuel, which is not currently happening for the majority of Ujjwala customers.

Because the majority of Ujjwala beneficiaries have cost-free access to solid fuels from forest and agricultural fields, there is less incentive for these families to use LPG regularly instead of sporadically. Priority households for Ujjwala, especially those with no working age adults, are often severely economically disadvantaged and can’t afford to buy LPG at regular intervals.

Furthermore, unlike LPG, a traditional mud stove is more versatile and can serve dual purposes of space heating and cooking during winter months. Many prospective customers are also hesitant about the inferior taste of food cooked in LPG, the utility of the mud stove’s smoke as insect repellent, and the trade-off of expenses on tobacco and alcohol with LPG refills.

As per past studies, even the richest 10% of India’s rural households (most with access to LPG) continue to depend on solid fuels to meet ~50% of their cooking energy demand. This suggests that wealth is not the only stumbling block in the transition process.

“Whatever factors matter in the outside world, my working hypothesis is that every decision is finally mediated through a person’s attitude, knowledge, and perceptions of control,” said Kar. According to Kar, interventions can be specifically targeted to address factors that are perceived negatively either by informing people or doing something to improve that factor. Nevertheless, developing effective interventions is no simple task.

Even with a background in physics and management and eight years of experience helping people transition from one technology to another, Kar says he is grateful to have the input of a variety of scholars at IIASA, each with a different perspective and a different set of core skills and experiences. Working in the Energy program alongside IIASA staff and fellow YSSPers from all over the world, Kar puzzles out the unsolved challenge of how to create change for the rural poor.

“That has been one of my drivers, I take it as an intellectual challenge,” said Kar. “Is there a systems approach to the problem?”

For now, Kar is happy if he can return at the end of the day to his family, which he brought with him to Austria during his time as a YSSP participant, feeling like he is opening the door to a vast literature on technology adoption and human behavior, yet untapped in the field of cooking energy access.

“This research is only a very small baby step into trying something different,” said Kar, “I think this sector has so many unanswered questions, if I can at least flag that there is a lot of literature out there in other domains and maybe we can use some of it, I think that would be good enough for me.”

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Clean air beyond the 2008 Olympics in China?

By Caroline Njoki, IIASA Science Communication Fellow 2017

The Olympic Games creates a spectacle that enthralls the world every four years. Countries enter a competitive bidding process to select a new host, hoping to enhance their international image and attract tourism. Among many other preparations, the host nation commits to meeting recommended air quality standards to safeguard the health of athletes, visitors, and residents.

Studies indicate that air pollution can affect performance and compromise the health of those engaged in competitive sports and outdoor physical activities. Through his presentation at IIASA in July, Professor Tong Zhu from the College of Environmental Sciences and Engineering at Peking University expounded on health effects arising from a major air pollutant: particulate matter measuring 2.5 microns or less, known as PM2.5.

The Bird’s Nest Stadium, Beijing Olympics 2008 © rytc | flickr

PM2.5 is made up of fine particles smaller than human hair, pollen or mold. These tiny particles are released into the atmosphere from many sources: burning solid fuels and waste, wildfires, emissions from industry, vehicles, construction and mining, volcanic eruptions, and dust. ‘‘It is difficult to tackle particulate matter as its chemical composition changes when it mixes with other substances in the air. It can also be transported far from the different sources depending on weather conditions and topography,’’ said Zhu.

Once inhaled, the minute particles travel deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream, leading to impaired brain, respiratory, and heart function. Lung cancer, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lowered life expectancy are all associated with PM2.5 exposure. Taking part in oxygen-demanding physical activities such as long-distance races, jogging, and cycling requires breathing more through the mouth than nose. This increases the likelihood of inhaling harmful pollutants, especially in areas where concentrations are high.

Hosting international sport events such as the Olympics Games comes with commitment to improve air quality standards to safeguard the health of athletes, visitors, and residents © Pete Niesen | Shutterstock

China is a densely populated and industrialized country with coal as the main source of energy. Eighty-three percent of China’s population live in regions whose PM2.5 levels exceed World Health Organization’s guidelines, compared to 32% of the world population. Use of coal for domestic heating goes up during the winter, generating more particulate matter pollution indoors. In 2010, 1.2 million people died in China as a result of particulate matter pollution; it was the country’s fourth leading cause of death after diet, high blood pressure, and smoking. ‘‘Electricity would be a better option but is highly priced, hence the preference for biomass fuels by residents. Phasing out coal and switching to renewable energy and cleaner production technologies would greatly alleviate the problem,’’ said Zhu.

Zhu was involved in several initiatives to improve air quality in preparations for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Measures included temporary relocations of more polluting industries and complete shutdown of coal plants, limiting construction projects, and transport restrictions. For instance, public transport and cycling was promoted to cut the number of vehicles on the road and reduce emissions.

Although short term, steps taken to reduce PM2.5 and other pollutants also benefited locals living in Beijing and adjacent cities that were selected as sporting and training venues. This meant fewer people seeking outpatient and inpatient medical services, and fewer deaths. The economy also benefited from a healthy labor force.

Professor Tong Zhu and Verena Rauchenwald from the Air Quality and Greenhouse Gases Program after the presentation on health effects of PM2.5 at IIASA © Caroline Njoki | IIASA

IIASA’s own work on air pollution spans 30 years, has shaped EU air pollution policy, and is now being applied to Asian countries including China. The IIASA Greenhouse Gas and Air Pollution Interactions and Synergies model enables countries to identify and select suitable cost-effective measures to tackle air pollution and reduce associated health problems.

The PM monitoring in China, which was initiated for the Olympic Games, using both satellite and ground-based observations, continues and has been expanded to cover more sites in the country. Information generated about air quality status is now distributed to concerned authorities to develop or reinforce regulatory measures. Air quality alerts enable residents know when it is safe to engage in outdoor activities or adopt safety measures.

China anticipates cleaner air from implementation of long-term policies and programs already in place. Investing in air quality means healthier people and alongside that, lively stadiums with athletes and cheering crowds, more medals, and world records.

References

Rich DQ, Kipen HW, Huang W, Wang G et al (2012). Association Between Changes in Air Pollution Levels During the Beijing Olympics and Biomarkers of Inflammation and Thrombosis in Healthy Young Adults. JAMA 307 (19): 2068-78

West JJ, Cohen A, Dentener W, Brunekreef B et al (2016). What We Breath Impacts Our Health: Improving Understanding of the Link Between Air Pollution and Health. Environmental Science and Technology 50: 4895-4904

Zhu T (2017). Health Effects of PM2.5 in China: Scientific Challenges and Policy Implications. Presentation by Professor Tong Zhu on 11 July 2017 at IIASA.

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Modeling Vienna’s traffic: air pollution and health

By Anneke Brand, IIASA science communication intern 2016.

Accidents, lane closures, and congestion all affect the flow of road traffic and harmful emissions from vehicles. Live traffic data allow congestion to be detected more accurately and provide a more precise overview of vehicle emissions at different times and places. In his project for the Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP), Fabian Heidegger investigates how road traffic affects air pollution in cities, using Vienna and surrounding areas as a case study.

Air pollution is a major problem in Europe and globally. Health impacts of air pollution include a range of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. “10-20% of Europe’s urban population is exposed to excessive levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), along with several other air pollutants. NO2 pollution is highest along busy roads. Technical measures have so far often been circumvented, so cities are looking for other measures to reduce the pollution load. Traffic management has therefore gained interest as a way to reduce air pollution,” says Jens Borken-Kleefeld, Heidegger’s study leader at IIASA.

To calculate the amount of air pollution that cars and other vehicles release into the air, researchers use models that apply various sets of data: traffic networks, where and how far people drive, and emission factors of different vehicle categories. Input data for the model may include how many people live in a certain area, how many of them use cars, where they normally drive, and how many grams of pollutants (such as nitric oxide and NO2 gases) their type of cars emit per kilometer.

© Radub85 | Dreamstime.com

Inner city Vienna. © Radub85 | Dreamstime.com

Most of these models rely on average daily traffic data. For Heidegger’s YSSP project, which is related to his PhD work at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences  in Vienna, he is incorporating real-time data, measured every five minutes, into a traffic simulation model developed by Intelligent Transport Systems Vienna Region. A set of detectors in and around the city record the number and speed of vehicles. In addition, location data from the taxi fleet is incorporated into the traffic simulation. Heidegger can therefore immediately identify adverse traffic conditions like stop-and-go traffic, which has a high impact on emissions. This allows for a more accurate calculation and can help design traffic interventions for improving both traffic flow and air quality.

“In the case of a road closure, local emissions will obviously be lower at the specific road but total emissions for the area could be higher than before when drivers use alternative, longer routes or end up in stop-and-go traffic,” says Heidegger.

In order to understand how these diversions and the displacement of pollutants can affect overall emissions, Heidegger will first determine the emissions per street section, and second, what the effects are of diversions from day-to-day traffic patterns. Together with researchers from the Air Quality and Greenhouse Gases Program at IIASA, Heidegger plans to assess the impact of different intervention scenarios, for example an environmental zone in the city, where only modern cars will be allowed to enter. In a second scenario he will look at the effect of people commuting to Vienna, and a third scenario will explore the consequences of expanding pedestrian zones. The researchers hope that this study will better their understanding of the potential of traffic management to reduce air pollution.

 

More information

Air Pollution Policy Review 2011-2013

GAINS Model

AIR Program

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.