Saturday, March 29, 2014

Air Pollution and Agriculture

Ammonia pollution from agricultural sources poses larger health costs than previously estimated, according to NASA-funded research.

Harvard University researchers Fabien Paulot and Daniel Jacob used computer models including a NASA model of chemical reactions in the atmosphere to better represent how ammonia interacts in the atmosphere to form harmful particulate matter. The improved simulation helped the scientists narrow in on the estimated health costs from air pollution associated with food produced for export – a growing sector of agriculture and a source of trade surplus.

"The 'cost' is an economic concept to measure how much people are willing to pay to avoid a risk," Paulot said. "This is used to quantify the cost for society but also to evaluate the benefits of mitigation."
The new research by Paulot and Jacob calculate the health cost associated with the ammonia emissions from agriculture exports to be $36 billion a year – equal to about half of the revenue generated by those same exports – or $100 per kilogram of ammonia. The study was published December 2013 in Environmental Science & Technology.

The new estimate is about double the current estimate by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which suggests a cost of $47 per kilogram of ammonia. The scientists say the new estimate is on the high end of the spectrum, which reflects the need for more research into characterizing the relationship between agricultural ammonia emissions and the formation of the harmful fine particulate matter – a relationship that's not as straightforward as previous estimates assumed.

"The effect of ammonia on fine particulate is complex, and we believe that the models previously used in the United States to price ammonia emissions have not captured this well," Paulot said.
The map shows increase in annual mean surface concentration of particulate matter resulting from ammonia emissions associated with food export. Populated states in the Northeast and Great Lakes region, where particulate matter formation is promoted by upwind ammonia sources, carry most of the cost.
Image Credit: 
NASA AQAST/Harvard University

Manure from livestock and fertilizer for crops release ammonia to the atmosphere. In the air, ammonia mixes with other emissions to form microscopic airborne particles, or particulates. The particulates that pose the greatest health risk are those that measure no more than 2.5 micrometers across, or about 1/30 the width of a human hair, which when inhaled can become lodged deep within the lungs. Long-term exposure has been linked to heart and lung diseases and even death. As such, the particles are on the list of six common air pollutants regulated by EPA's National Ambient Air Quality Standards.

An increase in ammonia, however, does not translate to an equal increase in particulates. The relationship depends on meteorology as well as the concentration of other precursors to particulate formation, such as sulfate and nitric acid.

To clarify the effect of ammonia on fine particulates, Paulot and Jacob first modeled the agricultural sources of ammonia emissions utilizing a relatively new ammonia emissions inventory. Next they used the NASA GEOS-Chem model of atmospheric composition to simulate the complex chemistry that converts agricultural emissions – in this case ammonia – into fine particulate matter.

This information was then combined with food export data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, averaged from 2000 to 2009. Results show that U.S. food exports account for 11 percent of the total U.S. emissions of ammonia.

"Our study suggests controls on ammonia emissions from agriculture could help reduce particulate matter and provide significant societal benefits," Paulot said.

The impact, however, is not equal everywhere. Areas downwind of large agricultural regions often set the stage for more mixing of ammonia with man-made emissions from combustion, such as from traffic and power plants. More mixing means the formation of more fine particulate matter. For this reason, the largest health costs are most often carried by the more populated states in the Northeast and Great Lakes region.

The research was sponsored by NASA as part of the Air Quality Applied Sciences Team (AQAST) program.

NASA monitors Earth's vital signs from land, air and space with a fleet of satellites and ambitious airborne and ground-based observation campaigns. NASA develops new ways to observe and study Earth's interconnected natural systems with long-term data records and computer analysis tools to better see how our planet is changing. The agency shares this unique knowledge with the global community and works with institutions in the United States and around the world that contribute to understanding and protecting our home planet.


Nick Sollogub said...

Industrial farming is bad. It is nice that it is able to provide such a large number of people with food, but at the cost of the environment and health of others around it. Perhaps we should lower the population. Perhaps if people grew their crops in a sustainable way they would have less crops but in the end it would do less damage. With these lower crop yields people will go hungry if they are not able to provide food for themselves or their families. But maybe that is what society is missing, survival of the fittest. All of the amenities that are in our current society cater to people being lazy, everything is about convenience. There is overpopulation because nothing is thinning out the herd. This might be a good time to allow darwinism back into human nature.

Cynthia Romero said...

It does not surprise me that ammonia pollution causes greater health risks that initially recognized. The entire industrial farming is such bad news. What happened to growing your own food? What happened to getting food from your local farmer? Sounds to me like we have messed up big time. We hurt our environment and ourselves but still cannot slow down and pay attention. I also must agree with Nick on the survival of the fittest, overpopulation and Darwinism comment. People nowadays ARE lazy and will pay any price for convenience.

Kira Knight said...

Industrial farming does much more harm than good. Yes, it is a very efficient and easy way of producing food for so many people but I think the health and environmental risks outweigh the perks of this type of production by a landslide. The ammonia pollution is going to cause so many heath problems that it won't even matter how much food we are able to produce, because no one will be healthy enough to eat it. This type of production also adds to the problem of overpopulation. I agree with the previous comments in the sense that when we produce our food for ourselves, it weeds out the "weak". The more technological we try to become (when it comes to environmental issues), the more problems we will run in to.

Gina May said...

My question, along with I'm sure so many others is WHY? If ammonia pollution from U.S. farming imposes human health costs that are GREATER then the profits earned by the agricultural exports, why haven't regulations been made or better yet, why haven't they stopped doing things the way they are doing them. It just doesn't make sense to me. It's like saying hey you can bake this batch of cookies and sell them for a total profit of $20, all the while knowing that the people who eat them are going to get food poisoning, which will cost them say $40 in buying anti-nausea medicine and then you STILL go ahead and bake and sell those cookies. It's just wrong and it doesn't make sense to me.

I have an idea though! Why don't we all become Vegan! Then we could eliminate the need for livestock thus eliminating this increase in ammonia pollution :)

Melis Temelli said...

The case regarding ammonia is important not only for the U.S. but for the rest of the world, for atmosphere is not separated with borders, there is only one atmosphere shared by all the living things for planet earth. While it is easy to use ammonia for more products in agriculture, the externality effects are usually neglected as a result of the fact that these externalities do not directly affect those in power with respect to economy, but the effects usually take place indirectly affecting people little by little. In addition, the lobbies formed by people that are subject to negative effects of ammonia are much less powerful compared to lobbies that support use of this substance due to the profits generated in terms of agriculture and trade. Using the results of the research by NASA and other researches, it would be best to get organized against the use of ammonia for agriculture. This could be realized through two dimensions: first, the economies costs of using ammonia (USD46 per kg of ammonia) could be underlined; secondly its effects on public health on the long run could be emphasized using efficient advertisements, which would lead to an increase of public consciousness in time.

Anonymous said...

To support the enormous population worldwide, we have be forced to use industrial farming and, as outlined in this article, it not the safest for the environment or our health. Industrial Farming is the easiest way to eat the amount of people that inhabits our world however, we it begins to harm our environment as well as our own personal health, something must be done.

It is hard to implement any regulations in regards to pollution from chemicals such as ammonia because of the big corporations that are benefiting from ammonia and ultimately the opposing forces in stopping any further pollution.

In order for this pollution to stop, we need to take a stand. Doing things like, as Gina said, not eating livestock you are reducing the demand for these products. If this pollution continues not only will our environment fail but so will our health. And what can we do with unhealthy people and an unhealthy environment? Absolutely nothing!

Kaylee Looper

Dylan Hirsch said...

This is an example of how technology is unable to solve our population problems. Even though the green revolution, which was a technological revolution, caused us to produce massive amounts of food, it still is one of the main sources of pollution. Because of pollution, we will be unable to continue producing more food, even within the demand of our economy. There are practical and logistical solutions to some of the pollution problems (ammonia), but these are minuscule compared with the amount of pollution that would happen if our population increased.

Leah DeEgidio said...

In my opinion industrial farming has been a bad idea from the start. I understand that it is more efficient, however, this article outlines the harmful effects to us and our environment. One thing that doesn't make sense is that the harm is said to be greater than the profit. If ammonia pollution is more detrimental to our health then it is profitable in agricultural exports, there shouldn't be an issue. The companies making money off this ammonia will be the ones keeping it in the business.

Anonymous said...

The food industry is a tricky problem. Of course lowering our population would be the best solution, however, that can only happen over time. While the entire food industry is a mess, yes, we have to also consider that in moderation, the food industry can be fixed. It is not possible for everyone to grow food for themselves anymore. There simply isn't enough space, and people don't have time. It isn't necessarily about being "lazy" I would say, but more as a different choice of lifestyle, which in any regard, is a choice. If we think about it, we live in New York City. How are we supposed to grow all of our own food for the rest of our lives? It wouldn't work.
That being said, buying food from local markets is a good option, it keeps the local economy thriving, co2 costs low, and we wouldn't have such a cost of ammonia. The other problem I see with this is just that the lifestyle of Americans in general is too centered around consumption for this to be possible. If everyone were to buy from a local producer, we probably wouldn't have enough food for everyone. The real treatment to this ammonia problem goes back to changing a lifestyle, and changing the way that people see food. Even though, yes, convenience is a factor, I don't think that it is the only one we are looking at to solve this problem.

Leanna Molnar

Apoorva said...

Ammonia pollution has been regarded one of the most dangerous health hazards of today. Industrial farming has made it even worse. There needs to be a more sustainable way to farm crops and do it in a manner that does not affect the environment. The first world countries are allowing people to become more lazy by making things easier to do. However they fail to acknowledge the harm they are doing to the environment. We also have over population to blame for these consequences.

Anonymous said...

Ammonia has one of the most negative effects on the environment. The food industry continues to emit massive amounts everyday. Ideally, we should decrease food production but the population continues to grow making this impossible. The heads of this industry, and government officials, need to come together and find a way to feed the population without further damaging the environment.

-Haylei P.

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