Archives for category: Particulates

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recently completed an amazing series of reports on the cancer clusters in Western Pennsylvania. Here is a sample from Day 2 of their 8-day series.

In many places around Western Pennsylvania residents see clusters of death and clusters of people sickened by cancer or heart and lung diseases.

And, like Lee Lasich, a Clairton resident, they’re frustrated that government health and environmental agencies don’t see them too, don’t do something about the problems and don’t take a tougher stance on enforcement of air pollution regulations.

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The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s analysis of Pennsylvania Department of Health mortality data from 2000 through 2008 found that 14,636 more people died from heart and respiratory disease and lung cancer in 14 Western Pennsylvania counties than national rates would predict, or 12,833 after adjusting for excess smoking in the region. And the yearlong investigation found numerous people throughout the region who talked about what seemed like unnatural and unexplained clusters of illnesses and death in their communities.

This overlap of high mortality rates and pollution raises questions about whether there is a causal relationship. The question has not been definitively answered, but for the people who live among these clusters, the connection seems clear.

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When it comes to particulate pollution, what you can’t see can hurt you.

“The stuff now is more insidious but much harder to perceive,” said Lester B. Lave, the Carnegie Mellon University economics professor who pioneered pollution mortality research in the 1970s. “There is no rotten egg smell. There is no dirt. It is less easily perceived. People are usually astonished that Pittsburgh still is one of the worst, but air pollution is continuing.”

Studies estimate that pollution kills 20,000 to 60,000 each year in the United States. Even at the lower range, pollution deaths would equal the nation’s annual rate of homicides.

The upper range would equal traffic fatalities and suicides combined and rank pollution as the nation’s eighth leading cause of death, just behind diabetes — another disease pollution has been linked with — and just ahead of the combined category of influenza and pneumonia.

And what’s true about pollution deaths holds true about particulate pollution: Both remain largely imperceptible to the general public.

Science to the rescue

For the past 40 years, science time and again has implicated particle pollution as a major killer.

In 1970, Dr. Lave and Eugene B. Seskin for the first time calculated health damage from pollution. Their subsequent book, “Air Pollution and Human Health,” published in 1977, found not only “a close association between air pollution and mortality,” but determined the relationship to be substantial.

Drs. Lave and Seskin’s work stirred such controversy that it prompted an effort to get Dr. Lave fired from his teaching position. But their science stood the test of time and helped inspire major epidemiological studies in subsequent decades.

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From Reuters:

In a study of more than 4,000 black women in Los Angeles, those who lived in areas with higher levels of traffic-related air pollution were at increased risk of developing diabetes and high blood pressure.

The researchers, led by Patricia Coogan at Boston University, found that black women living in neighborhoods with high levels of nitrogen oxides, pollutants found in traffic exhaust, were 25 percent more likely to develop diabetes and 14 percent more likely to develop hypertension than those living in sections with cleaner air.

Previous research has linked air pollution to health problems such as diabetes, stroke, heart disease and even higher rates of death.

“The public health implications are huge,” said Dr. Jiu-Chiuan Chen, who studies the effects of air pollution at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine in Los Angeles, especially for black women, who have higher rates of diabetes and high blood pressure than white women. He was not involved in the current work.

Forty-four percent of all black women in the U.S. have high blood pressure and about 11 percent have diabetes compared with 28 percent and roughly seven percent, respectively, of white women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Black Americans also experience higher levels of air pollution than white Americans, according to the study authors.

For their investigation, published in Circulation, the researchers followed participants in the ongoing Black Women’s Health Study for 10 years. The women were mainly recruited from subscribers to Essence magazine, and none had diabetes or high blood pressure when the study began in 1995.

Over the course of a decade, 531 women developed high blood pressure and 183 women were diagnosed with diabetes.

The findings on their relative risks for those conditions take into account several other potential influences, including how heavy the women were, whether they smoked and other stressors, including noise levels at participants’ homes.

Although researchers measured average pollution levels near participants’ homes for only one year of the ten-year study, Coogan told Reuters Health that air pollution patterns remained relatively constant over the entire study period.

While Coogan and her colleagues estimated nitrogen oxide concentrations near participants’ homes, they did not account for commuting habits or exposure to air pollution at work. According to the researchers, Americans, on average, spend about 70 percent of their time at home.

In addition to measuring nitrogen oxides, a proxy for traffic pollution, the researchers evaluated levels of fine particulate matter. Many sources contribute to this type of air pollution, including traffic, power plants and industrial processes.

Women who lived in areas with higher fine particulate exposures also faced an increased risk of diabetes and high blood pressure, although statistically the link was weak and could have been due to chance.

Previous reports have suggested that air pollution particles small enough to make their way into the blood stream may contribute to a narrowing of blood vessels, which can lead to high blood pressure and reduce sensitivity to insulin.

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Image from Flickr.

From the Associated Press:

When winter comes to Utah and atmospheric conditions trap a soup of pollutants close to the ground, doctors say it turns every resident in the Salt Lake basin into the equivalent of a cigarette smoker.

For days or weeks at a time, an inversion layer in which high pressure systems can trap a roughly 1,300-foot-thick layer of cold air — and the pollutants that build up inside it — settles over the basin, leaving some people coughing and wheezing.

“There’s no safe level of particulate matter you can breathe,” said Salt Lake City anesthesiologist Cris Cowley, who is among a number of Utah doctors raising the alarm over some of the nation’s worst wintertime air.

The doctors and a lobby group of Utah mothers are blaming a company that mines nearly a mile deep in the largest open pit in the world for contributing one-third of Salt Lake County’s pollution. The rest is from tailpipe and other emissions.

They have filed a lawsuit against Kennecott Utah Copper, accusing it of violating the U.S. Clean Air Act. The company operates with the consent of state regulators who enforce the federal law.

The company is the No. 1 industrial air polluter along Utah’s heavily populated 120-mile Wasatch Front and operates heavy trucks and power and smelter plants. It says the claims are “without merit.”

Kennecott cites the blessing of Utah regulators for expanded operations and new controls that hold emissions steady.

Utah’s chief air regulator, however, acknowledged Kennecott is technically violating a 1994 plan adopted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that limited the company to hauling 150 million tons of ore a year out of the Bingham Canyon Mine.

Utah has twice allowed the company to exceed that limit, most recently to 260 million tons, as the company moves to expand a mine in the mountains west of Salt Lake City. In each case, Utah sought EPA’s consent, but the EPA didn’t take any action.

The lawsuit could force EPA’s hand, said Bryce Bird, director of the Utah Division of Air Quality.

Bird said the old limit would defeat changes Kennecott made to curb dust and emissions since 1994.

The EPA rules that set production instead of emissions limits puts many companies in a similarly “awkward position” and undermines confidence in Utah’s air pollution permits, Bird said.

Kennecott disputes the doctors’ figure and says it contributes about 16 percent of Salt Lake County’s overall emissions.

An examination by The Associated Press of emissions figures provided by Kennecott to state regulators shows the company’s share of pollutants ranges from 65 percent of Salt Lake County’s sulfur dioxide emissions to 18 percent of its particulates.

Particulates are tiny flecks of dust that doctors say can attract heavy metals. The particulates are ingested through the nose and lungs and can become lodged in brain tissue. They are especially damaging to the development of children.

Medical research has found that the first few minutes of exposure to air pollution does the most damage, with many people’s bodies able to react and fight off longer bouts of exposure, the doctors said.

Yet exposure to dust, soot and gaseous chemicals constricts vessels and send blood pressure soaring, making some people’s hearts flutter and spiking emergency hospital visits while putting fetuses in the womb at risk, the doctors say.

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Image from Flickr.

From Science News:

In a new study of people with diabetes, blood pressure rose in rough lockstep with short-term increases in soot and other microscopic air pollutant particles. Such transient increases in blood pressure can place the health of the heart, arteries, brain and kidneys at risk, particularly in people with chronic disease.

In contrast, when ozone levels climbed, blood pressure tended to fall among these people, independent of particulate levels. “And that was certainly not what we expected,” notes study coauthor Barbara Hoffmann of the Leibniz Research Institute for Environmental Medicine in Düsseldorf, Germany.

Temperature also had an independent effect: A five-day average increase of 11.5 degrees Celsius, for instance, was associated with a small drop in blood pressure, Hoffmann and her colleagues report online October 21 in Environmental Health Perspectives.

Earlier studies suggested that particulates of the size measured in this study — just 2.5 micrometers in diameter — can hike blood pressure, particularly in people with diabetes.

To further investigate, Hoffman and her colleagues followed 70 Boston-area men and women, ages 40 to 85, with long-standing type 2 diabetes. All lived within 25 kilometers of a major air pollution monitoring station. Each participant submitted to repeated health tests at intervals of several weeks, which the researchers matched up with air pollution values from the preceding five days.

The team found pollution-related changes primarily in systolic blood pressure, the pressure exerted by the pumping action of each heartbeat. Systolic pressure is the top number in a blood pressure reading.

Since levels of particulates and ozone don’t necessarily track, one type of air pollutant cannot be expected to cancel out blood pressure alterations posed by the other, the researchers say. And ozone-associated drops in blood pressure aren’t necessarily beneficial. In fact, Hoffmann says, they offer additional evidence of a diabetes-related impairment in the ability of blood vessels to quickly adjust to changing environmental conditions by relaxing or constricting.

Changes in ozone and air pollution levels had no effect on people whose blood sugar was well controlled. Similarly, people with healthy baseline blood pressure readings exhibited little vulnerability to pollution.

“So especially if you want to positively influence your risk from air pollution,” Hoffmann says, “it seems a very good idea to tightly control your blood pressure and your blood sugar.”

The fact that a rise in concentrations of near-nanoscale particulates as small as 3.5 micrograms per cubic meter of air could raise systolic blood pressure “corroborates that current levels of particulate matter disrupt blood pressure control,” says physician Robert Brook of the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor. The new data, he maintains, confirm that short-term inhalation of fine airborne particulates at ambient levels — and perhaps traffic-related soot in particular — “have small but potentially clinically meaningful effects.”

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From Reuters:

People who have never smoked, but who live in areas with higher air pollution levels, are roughly 20 percent more likely to die from lung cancer than people who live with cleaner air, researchers conclude in a new study.

“It’s another argument for why the regulatory levels (for air pollutants) be as low as possible,” said Francine Laden, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, who was not involved in the research.

Though smoking is the number one cause of lung cancer, about one in 10 people who develop lung cancer have never smoked.

“Lung cancer in ‘never smokers’ is an important cancer. It’s the sixth leading cause of cancer in United States,” said Michelle Turner, the lead author of the study and a graduate student at the University of Ottawa.

Previous estimates of how many non-smokers get lung cancer range from 14 to 21 out of every 100,000 women and five to 14 out of every 100,000 men.

The fine particles in air pollution, which can irritate the lungs and cause inflammation, are thought to be a risk factor for lung cancer, but researchers had not clearly teased apart their impact from that of smoking.

In this study, Turner and her colleagues followed more than 180,000 non-smokers for 26 years. Throughout the study period, 1,100 people died from lung cancer.

The participants lived in all 50 states and in Puerto Rico, and based on their zip codes, the researchers estimated how much air pollution they were exposed to — measured in units of micrograms of particles per cubic meter of air.

Pollution levels in different locations ranged from a low of about six units to a high of 38. The levels dropped over time, however, from an average of 21 units in 1979 – 1983, to 14 units in 1999 – 2000, producing an overall average pollution level of 17 units across the study period.

After the team took into account other cancer risk factors, such as second-hand smoke and radon exposure, they found that for every 10 extra units of air pollution exposure, a person’s risk of lung cancer rose by 15 to 27 percent.

The increased risk for lung cancer associated with pollution is small in comparison to the 20-fold increased risk from smoking.

And the study team didn’t prove that the pollution caused the cancer cases, but “there’s lots of evidence that exposure to fine particles increases cardiopulmonary mortality,” Turner told Reuters Health.

Fine particles in air pollution can injure the lungs through inflammation and damage to DNA, Turner’s team writes in its report, published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

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From Forbes:

The debate over air pollution and, more specifically, the regulation of air pollution, raged on this week as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) watered down its cross-state pollution rule and House Republicans moved to delay new rules on toxic air pollution from cement plants, solid waste incinerators, and industrial boilers.  These latest debates come on the heels of President Obama’s move last monthto reneg on promises to tighten up smog standards, a decision that angered environmentalists and led to speculation that EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson might be ready to walk. In all cases, the argument against regulation goes something like this: The last thing a down economy needs is new regulation, and the EPA is overstepping its boundaries.

These arguments center largely around the idea that current air pollution regulation is good enough as-is, and that any further restrictions are aimed at tackling environmental issues and climate change, both typically seen as luxuries in a down economy. But research is continuing to pile up in support of the claim that not only are current air pollution regulations inadequate, but that air pollution is very much a public health issue.

When viewed through the public health lens, the economic arguments against regulation of air pollution begin to unravel, particularly in the face of rising healthcare costs. Consider, for example, a spate of new studies that have found a rather convincing correlation between the presence of small particulate matter (PM2.5, the ultrafine particles blown into the air by road traffic, coal-fired power plants, industrial manufacturing, and residential wood fuel combustion) and both obesity and diabetes.

Medical research has long supported the fact that exposure to ultrafine particulate matter increases the risk of various respiratory, cardiovascular, and pulmonary illnesses. Incidences of asthma, heart attacks, and chronic bronchitis are all higher in areas where the concentration of ultrafine particulate matter is higher. The correlation between particulate matter and these health issues is particularly pronounced in children, as well as low-income communities, which are often located closer to the sources of particulate matter (highways, factories, power plants) than their higher income neighbors.

Over the past decade, new studies have emerged that link air pollution to two of this country’s most pressing (and expensive) health epidemics: obesity and type II diabetes. Both are not only on the rise in terms of diagnoses, but also in terms of the costs associated with treatment. According to a January 2011 study by the Society of Actuaries, the current cost of the obesity epidemic in the United States is $270 billion a year.  The American Diabetes Association puts the current cost of dealing with diabetes (over 90 percent of U.S. diabetes cases are type II) at $174 billion. According to the Center for Disease Control, asthma is a leading cause of school absenteeism in the United States, and the cost of treating asthma in children 18 and under alone is $3.2 billion per year. Meanwhile, financial analysts estimate the cost of tightened air pollution regulations at $130 billion. Granted, these are not budget line items that are easily swapped in for each other, but a tie-in to obesity and diabetes may just make tackling air pollution more economically viable.

Of course, no one is saying, “hey, forget about diet and exercise, just take care of air pollution!” Nonetheless, even after controlling for factors such as genetics, income levels, weight, diet and exercise, Harvard researchers found a “consistent and significant” relationship between Type II diabetes prevalence and exposure to ultrafine particulate matter in a recent study.

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From the Los Angeles Times:

You’ve decided to help your health and the environment by riding your bike to work. Good for you! Sorry to have to deliver the bad news: you may be inhaling more soot.

The amount might be more than twice as much as urban pedestrians, says a pilot study presented Sunday at the European Respiratory Society’s Annual Congress. The study involved five cyclists who regularly biked to work and five pedestrians from London. They ranged in age from 18 to 40 and were healthy nonsmokers.

Researchers analyzed airway microphage cells from the participants’ sputum samples. Airway microphage cells guard the body against foreign bodies such as viruses and bacteria. The cyclists were found to have 2.3 times the amount of black carbon in their lungs compared with the pedestrians.

“The results of this study have shown that cycling in a large European city increases exposure to black carbon,” said co-author Chinedu Nwokoro in a news release. “This could be due to a number of factors including the fact that cyclists breathe more deeply and at a quicker rate than pedestrians while in closer proximity to exhaust fumes, which could increase the number of airborne particles penetrating the lungs.”

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Image by Alex Abian on Flickr.

From Maine’s Sun Journal:

Brystal doesn’t know exactly what asthma is, but she knows, “I can’t breathe.”

This personable little girl has been hospitalized at least a dozen times to treat her lung disease, the first time when she was five months old.

She was so sick in infancy, wheezing and gasping for air, that her family thought she might die several times during one particular month-long stay at Central Maine Medical Center.

Instead, with careful attention to treatment, she has thrived.

And, according to her mother, Loretta Pinkham, “She keeps busy no matter how miserable she feels.”

Last year, when Brystal was hospitalized, Loretta remembers her daughter saying, “I’m sorry I’m sick, Momma.”

It breaks her heart, Loretta said, seeing her daughter “struggling and there’s nothing I can do to make this better … until the meds kick in.”

“She could grow out of it,” Loretta said. “There’s a chance she could get worse. We don’t know at this point.”

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Brystal, who lives with her parents and older sister Brianna Jordan in Poland, is one of an estimated 25,877 Maine children living with asthma, and is among the most seriously ill who account for an estimated 2,562 emergency-room visits and 414 hospital stays each year.

In recent years, the number of people here afflicted with asthma has increased.

Last year, the number of adults in Maine living with asthma was 106,273, with the highest rates of disease in Cumberland, York, Penobscot, Kennebec and Androscoggin counties.

In 2000, the asthma rate in Maine was 7.3 percent of the population. By 2005, that figure had grown to 8 percent, according to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. The asthma rate in Maine now stands at 10.8 percent, which is the third-highest rate in the country and more than two points higher than the U.S. average. Oregon has the highest rate, followed by Arizona.

In Maine, the rate among women is 13.4 percent; the rate for men is 8 percent. And, according to DHHS, children have higher prevalence rates and higher rates of emergency department visits and hospitalizations than adults.

Every year, according to DHHS, half of all asthma patients suffer an asthma attack, which happens when bronchial muscles tighten suddenly in response to an irritant, such as pollen, smoke, pollution, temperature or exercise. When that happens, bronchial airways swell, which limits airflow and induces wheezing, rapid breathing and coughing. Left untreated, a severe attack can result in death as a person’s oxygen supply is strapped.

Dr. Andrew Carey of the Adult and Pediatric Asthma and Allergy Treatment Center in Lewiston is Brystal’s pulmonologist. He has been in practice for 19 years and says he’s seeing more asthma cases now than ever before.

Dr. Neil Duval, managing physician at Central Maine Pulmonary and Sleep Medicine in Lewiston, is also seeing an increase in the number of adult asthma patients.

In practice for the past two decades, Duval said, “The numbers have been climbing back as far as I can recall.” There are a number of reasons for it, he said.

One is that doctors are increasingly recognizing symptoms and diagnosing the disease but, he said, “Even if you account for that, there is a definite rise in the incidence of asthma, as well as the prevalence.”

In April, a coalition of Health Care Without Harm, the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments and the National Association of School Nurses issued a report about what researchers called “the staggering human and financial toll of asthma in Maine,” and the likelihood that the toll would increase if Congress does not act to update the Clean Air Act.

The report, “The Economic Affliction of Asthma and Risks of Blocking Air Pollution Safeguards,” outlines the cost of asthma across the country, estimating that the “direct costs of treating Maine’s worsening asthma epidemic” already exceed $265 million for medical treatment. Millions more are spent in indirect costs, such as lost productivity at work, missed school days and premature death.

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The Sydney Morning Herald:

Women who live near freeways and highways are more likely to give birth prematurely, new research suggests.

The link between the concentration of major road routes around a woman’s home and early birth is revealed in a study of 970 mothers and their newborn babies in Logan City, south of Brisbane.

The more freeways and highways around a pregnant woman’s home, the higher the likelihood of an early delivery, says Associate Professor Adrian Barnett, from the Queensland University of Technology’s Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation.

“The most striking result was the reduction in gestation time of 4.4 per cent – or almost two weeks – associated with an increase in freeways within 400 metres of the women’s home,” he said.

Prof Barnett has previously published a study that found a strong association between increased air pollution and small foetus size.

“Although the increased risks are relatively small, the public health implications are large because everyone living in an urban area gets exposed to air pollution,” he said.

“Pre-term and low-birth weight babies stay in hospital longer after birth, have an increased risk of death and are more likely to develop disabilities.”

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From The Independent:

The world’s deadliest pollution does not come from factories billowing smoke, industries tainting water supplies or chemicals seeping into farm land. It comes from within people’s own homes. Smoke from domestic fires kills nearly two million people each year and sickens millions more, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

A new UN project has now been set up to try to reduce this appalling toll. It aims, over the next nine years, to put 100 million clean cooking stoves into homes in the developing world.

The WHO ranks the problem as one of the worst health risks facing the poor. In low-income countries, such as those in Africa and Asia, indoor smoke from cooking has become the sixth biggest killer. Globally, it kills more people than malaria, and nearly as many as Aids – and far more insidiously than either.

The problem is partly the fuels used, partly the lack of ventilation. Cooking on open fires and stoves without chimneys, using basic fuels such as wood, animal dung, crop waste and coal, emits hazardous smoke that causes irreversible ill health and killer diseases. Small soot or dust particles penetrate deep into the lungs, causing lung cancer, child pneumonia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Women and children, whose traditional place is in the kitchen, are the the most common victims.

Stoves and open fires are the primary means of cooking and heating for nearly three billion people. In India, some 400,000 people die each year from the toxic fumes. In Africa, 500,000 children under the age of five die from pneumonia attributable to indoor air pollution, according to the WHO. And in Afghanistan, smoke from cooking and heating fires killed 20 times as many people in 2010 as did the ongoing conflict.

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From documentary website:

Can air pollution cause long-lasting effects on children’s respiratory health? In 1992, the California Air Resources Board funded a study to try to answer questions on the long-term health effects of air pollution on children. The video describes the results of the Children’s Health Study, which was conducted by a team of scientists at the University of Southern California. Scientists looked at 5,500 children from 12 communities in Southern California with differing types and levels of air pollution. The scientists followed children from each of these communities and then compared their respiratory health with the pollution levels in their communities.

From Documentary Website:

“Home, sweet home.” Most people would say that they feel safest in the comfort of their own homes. The skies could open up and pour down acid rain, the smelters might be spewing clouds of ash and dust, a thick layer of vehicular emissions might blanket the cities, but we remain healthy and happy in our sheltered environments.

But, surprise, surprise. UP CLOSE AND TOXIC reveals that the great indoors is not as safe as we’ve been lulled into thinking. Toxicologists have found that the levels of most indoor air pollutants exceed those found outdoors – even in our most polluted cities. We know very little about the long term or cumulative effects of our indoor exposure. Cleaning products, pesticides, paint dust, lead particles in the carpet, plastic toys…UP CLOSE AND TOXIC provides an informative wake-up call in an entertaining manner, makes the sources of indoor pollution easy to understand, and provides tips for safer practices, materials, and cleaning agents.

National Geographic News: Plane exhaust kills more people than plane crashes.

There’s a new fear of flying: You’re more likely to die from exposure to toxic pollutants in plane exhaust than in a plane crash, a new study suggests.

In recent years, airplane crashes have killed about a thousand people annually, whereas plane emissions kill about ten thousand people each year, researchers say.

Earlier studies had assumed that people were harmed only by the emissions from planes while taking off and landing. The new research is the first to give a comprehensive estimate of the number of premature deaths from all airline emissions.

“We found that unregulated emissions from [planes flying] above 3,000 feet [914 meters] were responsible for most of the deaths,” said study leader Steven Barrett, an aeronautical engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

Airplane exhaust, like car exhaust, contains a variety of air pollutants, including sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides.

Many of these particles of pollution are tiny, about a hundred millionths of an inch wide, or smaller than the width of a human hair.

So-called particulate matter that’s especially small is the main culprit in human health effects, especially since the particulates can become wedged deep in the lung and possibly enter the bloodstream, scientists say.

Read more here.

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