March 14, 2019

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1 big thing: The unequal burden of air pollution

Adapted from Tessum et al., 2019, “Inequity in consumption of goods and services adds to racial-ethnic disparities in air pollution exposure”; Chart: Chris Canipe/Axios

Exposure to air pollution in the U.S. is unevenly distributed, with the white population causing much of the pollution that black and Hispanic populations breathe in, a thought-provoking and novel new study found.

Why it matters: Fine particulate matter is responsible for 63% of environment-related deaths in the U.S. each year, adding up to around 100,000 deaths. Previous research has examined the ties between income and pollution exposure, and it's long been known that the location of pollution sources — such as coal-fired power plants and factories — tend to be located in or upwind of poor neighborhoods that have a greater concentration of minorities.

However, this new research is the first to comprehensively analyze the gap between who generates pollution and who breathes it in.

Background: The study, by a group of engineers and economists, focuses on fine particulate matter, known as PM2.5, tiny particles about the smaller than the width of a human hair that can easily be breathed in and get lodged deep into the lungs. Such particles can cause cardiovascular problems, aggravate pre-existing conditions like asthma, and increase mortality from cancer, strokes and heart disease.

What they did: The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday, first estimates mortality from PM2.5 for the U.S. as a whole for all emission sources.

  • Next, the researchers tied these emissions to the end-use activities and end-user parties responsible for generating this pollution.
  • The team compared the types of goods and services people spend their money on to the amount and geographic distribution of these activities.
  • Lastly, they compared results among racial and ethnic groups to calculate a metric known as "pollution inequity," which they define as "the extent to which groups disproportionately contribute to or bear the burden of pollution."
  • More simply, this metric is the difference between the pollution that people cause and the pollution to which they are exposed.

What they found: The study found that the black population has a pollution inequity of 56%, while Hispanics (in this study, people of all races who are Hispanic or Latino) have a pollution inequity of 63%. The white population and other races, on the other hand, are exposed to 17% less PM2.5 pollution than they contribute and therefore enjoy a "pollution advantage."

  • The study zeroes in on the role that the amount of personal consumption of goods and services (everything from going out to restaurants to buying a new house) plays in causing this pollution imbalance.
  • They found that the quantity of consumption accounts for the majority of the overall pollution imbalance between all races and ethnicities studied.

Meanwhile: Exposure to PM2.5 has decreased among all ethnic groups during the 2003–2015 study period, which is a sign that clean air rules are succeeding. However, the racial and ethnic inequities are persisting.

What they're saying: “Someone had to make the pen you bought at the store. We wanted to look at where the pollution associated with making that pen is located. Is it close to where people live? And who lives there?” said co-author Julian Marshall in a press release.

"They certainly make assumptions in their analysis that might be questioned down the line, but I doubt that the overall pattern they found will change," Ana Diez Roux, an epidemiologist at Drexel University who was not involved in the study, told NPR.

2. The ocean has been doing all of us a huge favor

Photo: Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

The world's oceans are a massive carbon "sink," taking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and absorbing it into their churning depths. But this sink is showing signs of strain.

Why it matters: If the oceans slow their carbon uptake, there would be more planet-warming carbon dioxide in the air, which would speed up global warming significantly.

What they did: For a new study, published in the journal Science on Thursday, an international research team determined how much carbon dioxide the oceans have been absorbing.

What they found: The study finds that oceans have taken more than 100 billion tons of CO2 between 1994 and 2007, which is about one-third of total emissions during that period.

  • This shows the oceans roughly kept up with the ever-increasing rate of human-caused emissions during the 1994–2007 period.
  • While the overall share of emissions absorbed by oceans has not changed, the rate at which they are absorbing carbon dioxide has increased fourfold between 1994 to 2007, when compared to the period from 1800 to 1994, the study found.

"If it wasn't for this uptake by the oceans, the atmospheric CO2 concentration would be as much as 480 ppm and the global atmospheric temperatures would be considerably warmer," study co-author Richard Feely of NOAA tells Axios.

"This means that the ocean has been providing humanity with an ecosystem service that can be valued at more than $1 trillion."
— study co-author Nicolas Gruber of ETH Zurich tells Axios, assuming a carbon price of $10 per ton of CO2.

The research also shows that ocean acidification, which is occurring from chemical reactions as seawater absorbs CO2, is beginning to affect marine life well below the surface.

  • Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the pH of the ocean surface waters has declined by about 0.11 pH units, Feely says. The greatest decrease in pH is in the high latitudes.
  • Ocean acidification poses a major threat to calcifying organisms, such as sea butterflies and mussels, with indications that problems are already showing up in ecosystems.

Another study, published recently in Geology, provides a new long-term history of how carbon has accumulated in deep-sea sediments throughout geologic time. Carbon is absorbed this way as dead diatoms and plankton descend through the water column, accumulating slowly but steadily as "marine snow" on the seafloor.

"The more acidic the ocean becomes, the smaller the volume of dead carbonate plankton shells sinking through the water column that will make it to the seafloor without dissolving completely on their way down," study co-author Dietmar Muller tells Axios.

"In other words, we are continuously reducing the capacity of the oceans to store away atmospheric CO2 in deep-sea sediments."

3. WHO gives mixed message on Ebola fight

Data: DRC Ministry of Health; Chart: Andrew Witherspoon, Harry Stevens/Axios

A week after the nonprofit group Doctors Without Borders (MSF) issued a warning that the fight against the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) was on the verge of failing, the head of the World Health Organization provided a more upbeat message on Thursday.

Why it matters: This is the second-largest Ebola outbreak on record, and the WHO is taking the lead role in combatting it. How this organization views the response effort is critical to determining the course of this outbreak.

Details: WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesu, who just returned from a trip to the DRC alongside CDC director Robert Redfield, touted the fact that despite the outbreak continuing to flare within the Congo, it has not spread to any other countries.

  • He also said the number of new cases per week is down since January.

"Despite the incredibly difficult situation, the outbreak has been contained in 11 out of the 28 communities that have had cases," Tedros said. "You cannot say it's failing when the outbreak is contracting."

Tedros warned that the outbreak could grow worse if the security situation deteriorates.

Context: Medical teams struggling to extinguish this outbreak have been battling violent attacks from rebel groups and communities with a high level of distrust against them, with the latest occurring Thursday.

Last week, MSF called for a new approach to gain the trust of the local population. One of MSF's biggest concerns is that a high proportion of new deaths have been community cases, unknown to authorities beforehand. Such cases can help spread the virus further.

Johns Hopkins' public health expert Jennifer Nuzzo says she continues to have concerns about the reliability of the case statistics, due to the interruptions from security incidents. “I just really worry that we’re missing cases,” she tells Axios.

Go deeper: Axios' complete Ebola outbreak coverage

4. Calls grow for gene editing moratorium

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins and top science and ethics experts in the U.S. and 6 other countries on Wednesday called for an international 5-year moratorium on editing the type of genes that are passed on to future generations, Eileen Drage O'Reilly writes.

Why it matters: The call for a moratorium stems from the recent discovery that a Chinese researcher, He Jiankui, used the gene-editing tool known as CRISPR to edit human embryos in China, giving rise to twin babies.

The experts who spoke out Wednesday say a temporary moratorium is needed until it's no longer believed that "the risk of failing to make the desired change or of introducing unintended mutations (off-target effects) is still unacceptably high."

What's happening: The commentary from scientists and ethicists published in Nature Wednesday as well as a supportive statement from Collins — calls for a 5-year moratorium and the development of a global framework to support future moves on certain types of gene editing.

Of note: The suggested moratorium would not cover gene editing for research purposes only or the editing of somatic cells in humans to treat diseases.

"Certainly, the framework we are calling for will place major speed bumps in front of the most adventurous plans to re-engineer the human species. But the risks of the alternative — which include harming patients and eroding public trust — are much worse," experts wrote in Nature.

Jonathan Moreno, medical ethicist from the University of Pennsylvania, tells Axios the use of the word "moratorium" is strong, and perhaps "pause" may have been a better choice.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization has formed an expert panel that is meeting in Geneva March 18–19 to recommend governance mechanisms and develop a 12- to 18-month work plan around gene editing governance.

Moreno hopes WHO builds on the foundation from the 2017 consensus study report on human genome editing, with rules to boost transparency and scrutiny.

Go deeper: NIH and experts call for global moratorium on editing human embryos

5. Axios stories worthy of your time

A United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket launches on Aug. 12, 2018 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Photo: Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images

In major shift, NASA may use commercial rockets for next moon mission: This news comes after NASA's expensive Space Launch System hit another delay, and it could be a boon for SpaceX or United Launch Alliance.

Solar geoengineering could offset global warming without causing harm: Trying to offset half of human-caused global warming, rather than 100%, could cause fewer negative impacts, scientists say.

Debating the future of electric vehicles in oil country: Major oil companies are boosting their investments in EV charging tech (Ben Geman).

Too much computer: What the Boeing 737 MAX crashes and subsequent groundings mean for the future of automation. (Felix Salmon and JoAnn Muller)

6. What we're reading elsewhere

Apollo 17 Scientist-Astronaut Harrison Schmitt working at the Taurus-Littrow site, in 1972. Photo: Encyclopaedia Britannica/UIG Via Getty Images

7. Something wondrous: Colorado's giant comma

A satellite view of the powerful storm system making its way across the central United States
Satellite loop of the bomb byclone in the Plains on March 13. Image: CIRA/RAMMB/NOAA

A record-shattering storm, known as a "bomb cyclone" due to its rapid intensification rate, slammed the Plains states on Wednesday into Thursday.

Why it matters: This storm is one of the strongest to hit the Plains in decades, and it brought a large swath of the country to a virtual standstill on Wednesday in particular.

Details: It's rare to have a storm intensify so quickly — with its minimum central air pressure plummeting by 33 millibars in 24 hours over the Plains.

  • Such phenomena are much more common over the oceans, where clashes between air masses, support from jet stream disturbances, and the availability of heat and moisture from the sea tend to create the majority of such meteorological marvels.
  • The storm was the result of a combination of two jet stream disturbances into one, as detailed by meteorologist Philippe Papin on Twitter.
  • At least one all-time low pressure record was set Wednesday, in Pueblo, Colorado.

The impact: This storm's remarkable satellite presentation, appearing to be a giant comma punctuating the middle of the country, belied its fierceness on the ground. Denver International Airport saw 6 straight hours of blizzard conditions, including its strongest wind gust on record of 80 mph.

  • In Colorado Springs, winds gusted to 97 mph, as heavy snow fell, reducing visibility to near zero there as well.
  • According to The Weather Channel, the combination of high winds and snow forced the closure of interstates in six states and stranded hundreds of vehicles. At least 2 deaths are being blamed on the storm.

Thanks for reading, and see you back here next Thursday. Have a great week!