Tiny particles (PM2.5s) produced by burning anything are destroying our bodies. And they are making the COVID-19 pandemic worse.
THEY ARE NEARLY EVERYWHERE: Tiny particles produced whenever anything is set on fire.
Particles measuring 2.5 microns or less are so small that they are dwarfed by a single human hair. (A micron is one-thousandth of a millimetre.) And they are killing us.
The particles, known as PM2.5s, are small enough that they slip past our bodies’ natural defence mechanisms—primarily nose hairs—to gain easy access to every cell in our bodies. (‘PM’ stands for ‘Particulate Matter.’) Once there, they wreak havoc, causing cancers, heart attacks, lung disease, strokes, dementia, and Parkinson’s disease. They even increase the risk of permanent blindness.
Where do they come from? Burning gasoline, wood, candles, incense, natural gas or anything else: all produce PM2.5s. According to the 2021 edition of Canada’s air pollutant emission inventory report, a significant portion of Canadian PM2.5s comes from road dust, construction and the production of crops. But those resulting from burning fossil fuels kill tens of thousands of us every year, according to recently published research.
Comparative size of PM2.5s: Tiny particles caused by burning stuff kill millions every year. Source: EPA
The health damage
Unlike other substances which cause harm only at high levels, PM2.5s have no safe limit. In the words of the World Health Organization: “Small particulate pollution has health impacts even at very low concentrations—indeed no threshold has been identified below which no damage to health is observed.”
A UK study reported in the January 25, 2021 issue of the British Journal of Ophthalmology found that the particles increase the risk of irreversible blindness. Eyes are especially vulnerable, since there is a very high flow of blood to the retina, meaning that the eyes are exposed to an especially high volume of PM2.5s. This, says the study, raises the risk of age-related macular degeneration (AMD)—a leading cause of permanent blindness in older people.
As well as threatening our eyes, PM2.5s are killing us. Recent work by an international team of experts suggests that previous estimates of the number of deaths due to particle pollution were far too low. The study, published in the April 2021 issue of Environmental Research and Public Health, reports that PM2.5s from the fossil fuel industry alone resulted in 8.7 million premature deaths of adults older than 14 in 2018, across the world. That compares with 3.4 million deaths worldwide from COVID-19, as of May 15, 2021. In other words, fossil fuel-generated PM2.5s kill 2.6 times as many adult people in just one year as the pandemic has killed in total.
The groundbreaking study suggests that earlier estimates were too low because previous calculations relied on an incorrect model for the number of excess deaths at both high and low levels of PM2.5s.
On the world scale, Canada does not fare well, having a higher death rate from fossil-fuel generated PM2.5s than the US. Our rate is also higher than the following regions: South America; Western Asia and the Middle East; Central America and the Caribbean; Africa; and Australia and Oceania. Details of the study were supplied to Focus by lead researcher Karn Vohra of the University of Birmingham. More than one in seven (13.6 percent) deaths of Canadians over 14 are due to fossil fuel-produced particle pollution, compared with 13.1 percent in the US. (However, several parts of the world had higher rates still. Eastern Asia had 30.7 percent, and Europe 16.8 percent.)
In 2018, approximately 281,000 Canadians older than 14 died from all causes. According to the study’s data, more than 38,000 premature Canadian deaths in 2018 are attributable to the particulate pollutants from oil and gas.
Acknowledging that fossil fuels are not the only source of PM2.5s, the researchers point out the importance of concentrating on oil and gas. “Fossil fuel combustion can be more readily controlled than other sources and precursors of PM2.5 such as dust or wildfire smoke, so this is a clear message to policymakers and stakeholders to further incentivize a shift to clean sources of energy,” they conclude.
That’s something to think about when fossil-heads warn us to take our time in phasing out the tar sands and shutting down pipelines, or when we consider installing a gas fireplace. The study did not report on PM-related province-by-province deaths, due to a lack of suitable data.
Keep the home fires burning?
Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), to its credit, reports annually on the levels of air pollution, according to pollutant, source and province. The latest report, published April 30, 2021, reveals that home firewood burning remains the largest source of PM2.5s in Canada’s Commercial/Residential/Institutional category. This is despite the fact that the amount of PM2.5s generated across the country from home wood burning has dropped by nearly half in the period 1990-2019, in part owing to the replacement of open fireplaces with fireplace inserts, heat pumps, furnaces and more efficient wood stoves.
The ECCC data reveals that PM2.5 emissions in British Columbia from all sources totalled 64.1 kilo-tonnes in 2019, an increase of more than 8 percent compared with 2010. About 7 percent of the total was from home firewood burning, far less than the 32 percent that came from unpaved roads, but still a serious problem.
According to an article in the December 2020 issue of the peer-reviewed journal Atmosphere, PM2.5 levels triple inside dwellings when wood stoves are in use, much of it occurring when the door is opened to add wood. Consequently, the researchers recommend that wood stoves be sold with a health warning. Every time we light the wood stove, we are harming family and friends. Worse still, our dogs and cats.
Canada’s fossil-heavy future
How is Canada working to reduce fossil fuels and their devastating impact on both human and planetary health? In December 2020, Ottawa released an updated climate plan, including a promise to raise the carbon tax by $15 per year, reaching $170 per tonne in 2030. It also promised $15 billion in new climate spending.
It sounds reassuring: We have the climate crisis under control, with the goal of reaching “net-zero” emissions for the country by 2050. But a few facts get in the way of this convenient view. For instance, to succeed, the plan relies on carbon capture and storage (CCS), of which there are no commercially successful plants. As a January 2021 report from Friends of the Earth Scotland and Global Witness put it: “The [CCS] technology still faces many barriers, would only start to deliver too late, would have to be deployed on a massive scale at a scarcely credible rate and has a history of over-promising and under-delivering.”
A technical paper published by the Cascade Institute in April 2021 warns that despite the December 2020 climate plan, Canada will produce more oil and gas in 2050 than in 2020. Using projections from the Canada Energy Regulator and the federal government, the paper says that even with our stronger climate policies, Canada will be producing more natural gas and oil by 2050 than in 2019.
This will result in the oil and gas industry’s annual emissions growing to 200 megatonnes of CO2-equivalent by 2050.
But that counts only the upstream emissions—those emanating from extraction and processing. By the time those fossil fuels are transported and burned, Canada expects to have added to the atmosphere 26.1 gigatonnes of GHG emissions from oil, plus another 10.1 gigatonnes from gas. This amounts to more than 50 times the total 2019 GHG domestic emissions reported in Canada’s April 2021 National Inventory Report, which counts only emissions inside Canada, ignoring emissions generated when Canadian fossil fuels are ignited elsewhere.
This is in keeping with international emission reporting rules, according to which GHGs are counted only in the country in which they are produced. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t matter to Canada, which is warming twice as fast as the global average.
Put another way, for the official GHG inventories, the fossil fuel industry and their friends in the BC and Canadian governments who subsidize it worry only about the supply side of the fuels. If we care about the planet, we should also pay attention to the demand side, where emissions for each barrel of oil or thousand cubic feet of gas are vastly higher.
PM2.5s and COVID-19
Much has been written in the last year about the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has inadvertently improved the health of the planet, by reducing demand for fossil fuels, if temporarily. For instance, the Canada Energy Regulator reports that end-use energy demand fell in 2020 from 2019 levels, with the sole exception of residential electricity, as more people worked from home, fewer cars were on the road, and some factories closed. In other words, the pandemic has slightly reduced the use of fuels, including natural gas, diesel and gasoline: The virus temporarily helped the planet.
COVID-19 impact on Canadian energy use: All Canadian energy use declined in 2020 except residential electricity. Source: Canada Energy Regulator
But what about a related question: Has pollution from fossil fuels helped spread the virus?
There are at least two ways in which this could happen. First, it has long been known that air pollution, including from PM2.5s, causes inflammation in the lungs, inhibiting our ability to fight infections. As BC’s Centre for Disease Control says in a September 11, 2020 statement: “Exposure to air pollution can irritate the lungs, cause inflammation, and alter immune function, making it more difficult to fight respiratory infections such as COVID-19.” In smoky conditions, more people who are exposed to the virus may develop COVID-19 and some cases of COVID-19 may become more severe, warns the centre on its wildfire web page.
There is another way that PM2.5s from fossil fuels can make the pandemic worse: PM2.5s could carry the virus directly into our bodies. PM2.5s transport a range of substances into the human body, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heavy metals including mercury, chromium, cadmium, arsenic, lead, and uranium. Once inhaled, these hitchhiking substances only increase the toxicity of PM2.5s. They can also transport virus particles.
COVID-19 virus particles are spheres, approximately one-tenth of a micron in diameter. This means that COVID-19 particles are about 1/25th the size of the largest PM2.5 particles, suggesting that small particulate matter could carry the COVID-19 virus into our lungs.
In an article published in the June 2020 issue of Environmental Research and Public Health, four Italian researchers raise that very question. Particulate matter “could act as a carrier through the aerosol, conveying the virus and increasing its spread,” write the researchers.
In turn, this could magnify the havoc wreaked by COVID-19. “Cardiovascular effects induced by PM are linked to particles’ deposition in the lungs, to their translocation through the air-blood barrier to extra-pulmonary sites, and to the resulting systemic inflammation.” This inflammatory storm “may increase the mortality rate and the severity of expression of [COVID-19] in the most polluted areas.”
The 38,000 premature Canadian deaths described above are for 2018—more than a year before the pandemic began to take hold. If fossil fuel-derived PM2.5s increase the number of deaths attributed to COVID-19, shouldn’t fossil fuel providers share part of the blame? If major oil companies knew beforehand about the damage their products do to human health, is COVID-19 being unfairly blamed for more harm than it actually causes?
But did the fossil fuel producers know? Recently released documents from oil companies prove that they did.
An internal Shell technical report completed in July 1968, available from the University of California, San Francisco, was apparently written as a way of warning the company that it will likely face future regulations. (In May 2021, Shell, the lead partner in the LNG Canada project in Kitimat, reported profits of $3.2 billion US in the first three months of 2021.)
The 1968 report notes that “air pollution is largely a function of the use of fuels.” As a result, the fossil fuel industry is inevitably facing dreaded regulation: “When the concentrations reach adverse levels, controls must be applied, and because the oil industry is a major source of fuels control, legislation will affect us, both as a supplier and manufacturer.”
The Shell report even anticipates the damage done by PM2.5s.
“Particulates in combination with toxic substances are generally considered to be the real villains in health effects. This is explained on the basis that the particles concentrate the chemical on their surfaces or in their interstices and produce locally a high concentration of an otherwise very dilute substance. Further, as in the case of [sulphur dioxide], the particles carry a substance deep into the lungs which would otherwise be removed in the throat due to its high water solubility.”
The report also warns of the consequences of regulating the industry. “Regulations will affect our major product, gasoline, and hence have great potential for affecting operations, manufacturing, transport, dispensing, etc.”
Is COVID-19 getting a bum rap, one that should properly be shared by fossil fuels?
In any case, things must change, and quickly. We need to stop setting fire to things, especially fossil fuels. As longtime environmentalist Bill McKibben has said, it’s time to bring the combustion age to a close.
Russ Francis believes, on good evidence, that the climate crisis is real. But he wonders whether the Conservative Party of Canada exists.
Read the abstract of the Environmental Research and Public Health research report
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