“Poor air quality affects everyone” — How to protect yourself and clean the air

I remember when you could ride BART for free on a “Spare the Air” day, when smog was expected to reach unhealthy levels based on standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency. Now, there are too many of these days — 26 in the Bay Area last year — to enjoy that perk.

This bad air is making us sick, according to Stanford allergy specialist and clinical associate professor Sharon Chinthrajah, MD. In a recent episode of the Sirius radio show “The Future of Everything,” she spoke with Stanford professor and radio host Russ Altman, MD, PhD, about how we can combat the negative health impacts of air pollution.

“Poor air quality affects everybody: healthy people and people with chronic heart and lung conditions,” said Chinthrajah. “And you know, in my lung clinic I see people coming in with exacerbations of their underlying lung diseases like asthma or COPD.”

On Spare the Air days, Chinthrajah said even healthy people can suffer from eye, nose, throat and skin irritations caused by air pollution. And the health impacts can be far more serious for her patients. So she tells them to prepare for bad air quality days and to monitor the air quality index (AQI) in their area, she said.

The AQI measures the levels of ozone and other tiny pollutants in the air. The air is considered unhealthy when the AQI is above 100 for sensitive groups — like people with chronic illnesses, older adults and children. It’s unhealthy for everyone when the AQI is above 150.

On these unhealthy air days, Chinthrajah recommends taking precautions:

  • Limit the time you spend outdoors.
  • When outside, use a well-fitted air mask that filters out pollutants larger than 2.5 microns (which is about 20 times smaller than the thickness of an average human hair).
  • When driving, recirculate the air in your car and keep your windows closed.
  • Stay hydrated.
  • Once inside, change your clothes and take a quick shower before you go to bed, removing any air particulates that collected on you during the day.

In the radio show, Chinthrajah explained that published studies by the World Health organization and others demonstrate that people who live in developing countries like India and Asia — where they suffer poor air quality many days of the year — have a shortened life span.

“You know, there’s premature deaths. There’s exacerbation of underlying lung issues and cardiovascular issues. There’s more deaths from heart attacks and strokes in countries where there is poor air quality,” she said.

She admitted that it is difficult to definitively say these health problems are due to poor air quality — given the other problems in the developing country

es like limited access to clean water, food and health care — but she thinks poor air quality is a major contributor.

Chinthrajah said she believes we need to address the problem of air pollution at a societal level. And that means we need to target cars that burn fossil fuel, which account for much of the air pollution in California, she said. Instead, we need to move towards using public transportation and electric vehicles, as well as generating electricity from clean energy sources like solar, wind and water.

She noted that California is now offering a $9,5000 subsidy to qualifying low-income families to purchase low emission vehicles like all-electric cars or plug-in hybrids, on top of the standard federal and state rebates.

“So it seems like an overwhelming, daunting task, right? But I think we each have to take ownership of what we can do to reduce our carbon footprint. And then lobby within our local organizations to create practices that are sustainable,” she said.

Chinthrajah hopes that addressing air pollution and energy consumption at a societal level will lead to less asthma and other health problems, she said.

Image by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

Designing buildings to improve health

Are the buildings that we live and work in stressing us out?

The answer is probably yes, according to Stanford engineer Sarah Billington, PhD, and her colleagues. They also believe this stress is taking a significant toll on our mental and physical health because Americans typically spend almost 90% of their lives indoors.

During a recent talk at a Stanford Reunion Homecoming alumni celebration, Billington described a typical noisy office cut off from nature and filled with artificial light and artificial materials. This built environment makes workers feel stress, anxiety and distraction, which reduces their productivity and their ability to collaborate with others, she explained.

Now, Billington’s multidisciplinary research team is working to design buildings that instead reduce stress and increase a sense of belonging, physical activity and creativity.

Their first step is to measure how building features — such as airflow, lighting and views of nature — affect human well-being. They are quantifying well-being by measuring levels of stress, belonging, creativity, physical activity and environmental behavior.

In a preliminary online study, the team showed about 300 participants pictures of different office environments and asked them to envision working there at a new job. Across the board, the fictitious work environment was viewed as important to well-being.

“In eight out of the nine things that we were looking at, there were statistically significant increases in their sense of belonging, their self-efficacy and their environmental efficacy when they believed they were going to be working in an environment that had natural materials, natural light or diverse representations,” said Billington.

The researchers are now expanding this work by performing larger lab studies and designing future field studies. They plan to collect data from “smart buildings,” which use high-tech sensors to control the heating, air conditioning, ventilation, lighting, security and other systems. The team also plans to collect data from personal devices such as smartwatches, smartphones and laptops.

By analyzing all of this data, they plan to infer the participants’ behaviors, emotions and physiological states. For example, the researchers will use the building’s occupancy sensors to detect if a worker is interacting with other people who are nearby. Or they will figure out someone’s stress level based on how he or she uses a laptop trackpad and mouse, Billington said.

Stanford computer scientist Pablo Paredes, PhD, who collaborates on the project, explained in a paper how their simple model of arm-hand dynamics can detect stress from mouse motion. Basically, your muscles get tense and stiff when you’re stressed, which changes how you move a computer mouse.

Next, the team plans to use statistical modeling and machine learning to connect these human states to specific building features. They believe this will allow them to design better buildings that improve the occupants’ health.

The researchers said they intend to bring nature indoors by engineering living walls with adaptable acoustic and thermal properties.

They also plan to incorporate dynamic digital displays — such as a large art display on the wall or a small one on an individual’s personal devices — that reflect occupant activity and well-being. For example, a digital image of a flower might represent the energy level of a working group based on how open the petals are, and this could nudge their behavior, Billington said in the talk.

“Our idea is, what if we could make our buildings shape us in a positive way and keep improving over time?” Billington said.

Photo by Nastuh Abootalebi

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

Searching for Photocathodes that Convert CO2 into Fuels

Figure
Six-step selection criteria used in the search for photocathodes for CO2 reduction. The search began with 68,860 inorganic compounds. The number of materials that satisfied the requirements of each step are shown in red, with 52 meeting all the requirements.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) has a bad reputation due to its pivotal role in the greenhouse gas effect at the Earth’s surface. But scientists at the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP), a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Innovation Hub, view CO2 as a promising solution to clean, low-cost, renewable energy.

JCAP is a team led by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) that brings together more than 100 world-class scientists and engineers, primarily from Caltech and its lead partner, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab).

The JCAP team is developing new ways to produce transportation fuels from CO2, sunlight, and water using a process called artificial photosynthesis, which harvests solar energy and stores it in chemical bonds. If successful, they’ll be able to produce fuels while also eliminating some CO2 — a “win-win,” according to Arunima Singh, an assistant professor of physics at Arizona State University and a former member of the JCAP team.

Singh became involved in the research as a postdoctoral associate at Berkeley Lab, where she searched for new photocathodes to efficiently convert CO2 to chemical fuels — a major hurtle to realizing scalable artificial photosynthesis.

“There is a dire need to find new materials to enable the photocatalytic conversion of CO2. The existing photocathodes have very low efficiencies and product selectivity, which means the CO2 produces many products that are expensive to distill,” said Singh. “Previous experimental attempts found new photocatalytic materials by trial and error, but we wanted to do a more directed search.”

Searching for Needles in a Materials Project Haystack

Using supercomputing resources at the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC), the Berkeley Lab team performed a massive photocathode search, starting with 68,860 materials and screening them for specific intrinsic properties. Their results were published in the January issue of Nature Communications.

“The candidate materials need to be thermodynamically stable so they can be synthesized in the lab. They need to absorb visible light. And they need to be stable in water under the highly reducing conditions of CO2 reduction, ” said first author Singh. “These three key properties were already available through the Materials Project.”

The Materials Project is a DOE-funded database of materials properties calculated based on predictive quantum-mechanical simulations using supercomputing clusters at NERSC, which is a DOE Office of Science User Facility. The database includes both experimentally known materials and hypothetical structures predicted by machine learning algorithms or various other procedures. Of the 68,860 candidate materials screened in the Nature Communications study, about half had already been experimentally synthesized, while the remaining were hypothetical.

The researchers screened these materials in six steps. First they used the Materials Project to identify the materials that were thermodynamically stable, able to absorb visible light, stable in water, and electrochemically stable. This strategy reduced the candidate pool to 235 materials — dramatically narrowing the list for the final two steps, which required computationally intensive calculations.

“By leveraging a large amount of data already available in the Materials Project, we were able to cut the computational cost of the project by several millions of CPU hours,” said Kristin Persson, a faculty scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Energy Technologies Area and senior author on the paper.

Additional Screening with First-Principles Calculations

However, the Materials Project database did not have all the necessary data. So the final screening required new first-principles simulations of materials properties based on quantum mechanics to accurately estimate the electronic structures and understand the energy of the excited electrons. These calculations were computed at NERSC and the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) for the remaining 235 candidate materials.

“NERSC is the backbone of the Materials Project computation and database. But we also used about two million NERSC core hours to do the step 5 and 6 calculations,” said Singh. “Without NERSC, we would have been running our simulations on 250 cores for 24 hours a day for a year, versus being able to do these calculations in parallel on NERSC in a matter of a few months.”

The team also used about half a million core hours for these calculations at TACC, which were allocated through the National Science Foundation’s Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment (XSEDE).

These theoretical calculations showed that 52 materials met all of the stringent requirements of the screening process, but that only nine of these had been previously studied for CO2 reduction. Among the 43 newly identified photocathodes, 35 have previously been synthesized and eight are hypothetical materials.

“We performed the largest exploratory search for CO2 reduction photocathodes to date, covering 68,860 materials and identifying 43 new photocathode materials exhibiting promising properties,” Persson said.

Finally, the researchers narrowed the list down to 39 promising candidates by looking at the vibrational properties of the eight hypothetical materials and ruling out the four predicted to be unstable by themselves.

However, more work is needed before artificial photosynthesis becomes are reality, including working with their experimental colleagues like Caltech’s John Gregoire (a leader of JCAPS’s high-throughput experimentation laboratory) to validate their computational results.

“We have collaborators at Berkeley Lab and Caltech who are actively trying to grow these materials and test them,” Singh said. “I’m excited to see our study opening up new avenues of research.”

This is a reposting of my Computing Sciences news feature, courtesy of Berkeley Lab.

Sick people are worse for the environment, a study shows

Photo by ryan harvey

Environmental degradation is widely recognized to contribute to human illness. However, little research has been done to investigate the impact of human illness on the environment. This is a critical question particularly for the millions of people around the world who depend on natural resources for food and income while coping with high burdens of infectious diseases.

When people are sick, they often alter their use of natural resources in ways that harm the environment, according to a new study reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Specifically, the researchers examined how illness influenced fishing practices in the community around Lake Victoria, Kenya, which has high rates of HIV and other illnesses. They interviewed about 300 households several times over 16 months, collecting and analyzing data about household fishing habits and mental and physical health. They found that healthy people are better for the environment.

“Studies suggest that people will spend less time on their livelihoods when they are sick, but we didn’t see that trend in our study. Instead, we saw a shift toward more destructive fishing methods when people were ill,” said lead author Kathryn Fiorella, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar at Cornell University, in a recent news release.

The study found that sick fishermen were less likely to legally fish in deep waters or overnight to target the more sustainable mature fish. Instead, they used destructive fishing methods that were concentrated along the shoreline — such as using a beach dragnet that captures a high proportion of juvenile fish and disturbs shallow fish breeding habits.

Basically, sick fishermen just wanted to get their catch quickly with less energy. They were focused on their short-term goal and not worried about depleting the fish stock.

In light of this study, the authors suggest that institutions and organizations focused on protecting the environment may need to more deeply consider the health of communities. The paper concludes, “Our study emphasizes the importance of considering health, governance, and ecosystems through an integrative lens.”

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

Berkeley Lab Tackles Vaccine Delivery Problem with Portable Solar-Powered Vaccine Fridge

LBNL Institute for Globally Transformative Technologies research team with prototype vaccine fridge and backpack for developing countries. (Berkeley Lab / Roy Kaltschmidt)
LBNL Institute for Globally Transformative Technologies research team with prototype vaccine fridge and backpack for developing countries. (Berkeley Lab / Roy Kaltschmidt)

Vaccines are arguably one of the most important inventions of mankind. Unfortunately, vaccines must be produced and stored in an environment with very tight temperature regulation – between 36 °F and 46 °F – to keep the vaccine bugs alive. So vaccine delivery is a major problem due to the absence of reliable refrigeration in many remote countries.

Approximately 30 million children worldwide – roughly one in five – do not receive immunizations, leaving them at significant risk of disease. As a result, 1.5 million children under the age of five die annually from vaccine-preventable diseases, such as pneumonia and diarrhea. Perhaps more surprising, almost half of the vaccines in developing countries are thrown away because they get too warm during delivery so they are no longer viable. Some administered vaccines are also ineffective because they froze during transport, but there is no easy way to test this.

Scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) are trying to solve this vaccine delivery problem by developing a portable solar-powered fridge. Fabricated entirely at LBNL, their portable solar-powered vaccine fridge will be transported by bicycle or motorcycle in remote areas of the developing world. Zach Friedman and Reshma Singh are leading the project as part of the LBNL Institute for Globally Transformative Technologies, which seeks to bring scientific and technological breakthroughs to address global poverty and related social ills.

The team’s first prototype portable fridge uses a thermoelectric heat pump, rather than a traditional vapor compression heat pump that relies on a circulating liquid refrigerant to absorb and remove heat. The thermoelectric chips were initially developed to keep laptops cool, so laptops could be made thinner without fans. The technology was adapted for this global application to reduce the size and weight of the fridge.

Their portable units have a one to three-liter capacity, much smaller than standard solar fridges that are typically 50 liters or more. Once the fridge cools down to the right temperature (36 °F – 46 °F), it is designed to run within that temperature range for at least five days without any power, at an ambient outside temperature as hot as 110 °F.

Before the researchers can field test their first prototype fridge in Africa, they need to pass the World Health Organization’s Performance, Quality and Safety testing protocol for products used in immunization programs. They are currently busy performing in-house testing at LBNL to ensure that they pass the formal tests, which will be conducted by an independent laboratory in the UK.

“We aren’t in the process of field testing yet, but we have established field testing agreements in both Kenya and Nigeria and have locations identified,” said Friedman. “We expect to start testing this coming year.”

Meanwhile, they are continuing their portable fridge development. “Currently, we are pursuing both thermoelectric and vapor compression heat pumps, even for these smaller devices,” explained Jonathan Slack, lead engineer. “It is not clear which will win out in terms of manufacturability and affordability.”

They are also developing a backpack version of the vaccine fridge. However, human-carried devices have to meet stricter World Health Organization standards, so they are focusing at this stage on the small portable fridge instead.

Ultimately their goal is to make it easy for health care workers to deliver viable vaccines to children in remote areas, solving the “last miles” of vaccine delivery.

This is a repost of my KQED Science blog.

Time to Invest in Delta Levees

US Army Corp of Engineers inspect a Sacramento river levee ( U.S. Army photo by Chris Gray-Garcia, Flickr).
US Army Corp of Engineers inspect a Sacramento river levee ( U.S. Army photo by Chris Gray-Garcia, Flickr).

Two hundred years ago most of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (Delta) was a vast wetland. Early settlers built an intricate levee system to create dry “islands” suitable for farming.

Today, these levees help protect people, property, natural resources, and infrastructure of statewide importance. The Delta is home to more than 515,000 people and 750 animal and plant species; supplies drinking water to 25 million Californians and irrigation water for the majority of California’s agricultural industry; and attracts 12 million recreational visits annually.

Unfortunately the Delta levees are vulnerable to damage caused by floods, wave action, seepage, subsidence, earthquakes, and sea-level rise. While the occasional levee break is a fact of Delta life, a catastrophic levee failure could cause injury to people or loss of life. It could also damage property, highways, energy utilities, water supply systems, and the environment —all with regional and statewide consequences.

A variety of actions can be used to reduce flood risk in the Delta. The Delta Levees Council is developing a strategy to evaluate and guide future California investments to reduce the likelihood and consequences of levee failures. Interested? Learn more about this project and get involved by attending public meetings.

Prescription Drug Take-Back Day

prescription bottles
Photograph courtesy of joguldi via a Creative Commons license.

Do you have expired or unused prescription drugs stacked up in your medicine cabinet? It’s not safe to flush them down the toilet or throw them out with the trash. But you can get rid of them safely, easily and for free at sites across the US tomorrow. Yep, it is National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day on Saturday October 26 from 10 am – 2 pm. Drop them off at a local collection site.