Choking in the dust: time for visualization and predictive models

We are all literally choking on dust. It’s time to plan this out with the help of conceptual and predictive electronic models.

stifling numbers

Some stifling numbers from Longfonds: 12,000 people die each year from air pollution. There are 16,000 emergency admissions and 80,000 children with asthma. 750,000 people with lung disease regularly experience shortness of breath due to bad air.

The RIVM and the Board of Health also make a clear link between poor air quality and worrisome public health problems. They also have a national air quality monitoring network.

environmental background

Nitrogen is ubiquitous in nature and plants need it to grow well. However, the emission and accumulation of a lot of nitrogen (deposition on the ground) causes serious environmental and health problems.

The focus on nature and biodiversity is clearly visible. Natura 2000 areas die off and/or swell due to unwanted plant species. Soil acidification because nitrogen is converted to ammonia, nitrate, and nitrite. This in turn leads to a loss of calcium and minerals (calcium, magnesium, potassium). The soil becomes poor and poisoned by the remnants of harmful minerals. Trees wither and fall. Birds and other animals die from calcium deficiency.

There are three main health effects: Groundwater acidification threatens our drinking water. Tree death reduces the carbon dioxide offset and air purification effects of trees (which contribute even more to the climate crisis). Biodiversity decline is the cradle of new infectious diseases and deteriorating food production.

Low groundwater levels and drought are making it worse. Natural nitrogen removal from the soil by bacteria (they need moisture) is significantly reduced. Nitrogen remains in the soil rather than being returned to the atmosphere. Water boards, do something about it!

fine particles

Particulates, especially ultrafine particles, appear to be a significant public health hazard. The smaller and deeper the penetration, the more disastrous the effect.

With particulates, one often thinks of particles emitted from car tires, combustion gases, and industry. But flat bushfires and open fires don’t matter, nitrogen turns out to be the main culprit here, too. In particular, the compound with oxygen to form nitrogen oxides (NOx). Other (ultrafine) particles in the air also play a role, but to a much lesser extent than nitrogen compounds.

The main sources of nitrogen and particulate emissions are livestock farming, traffic, and industry. The most important actions are: reducing the size of these “sectors” and innovation (already operating).

Measurement, visualization and intervention

If we really wanted to do something about poor air quality, the triad of measurement, visualization and interference would emerge. This requires appropriate and affordable measuring equipment, applications, geographic information system, and a proven policy with measures to be taken. An important aspect is also forecasting. What will happen? What are the consequences of changes in traffic, industry, water levels, and nature management? The precautionary principle prevents subsequent critical errors.

To measure

Air quality can be measured from very simple to very complex. It is already possible with a smartphone or a gauge box on the bike. Nationwide, volunteers are now busy taking measurements on bikes.

In addition to fixed measuring stations that also provide geographical maps of the environment. Measuring air quality is essential for every municipality and the healthcare system should also actively lobby locally so that something like this really happens. This is very different from signing the Clean Air Agreement.

visualization

There are now many measurement applications and portable units for measuring air quality. They convert it into a visual graph or an explanatory map. A simple weather app can show how the air quality is now and in recent days. In addition, there are maps and a geographic information system about air quality in the Netherlands.

Thus sensitive patients can take their measures or move anyway. Air metering on the highways is interesting. There, speed and/or traffic flow decrease if air quality deteriorates. Air quality visualization helps municipalities to appropriately reduce the local situation.

intervention

Nitrogen and fine dust (Ultrafine) interventions are preventative and curative. Remarkably, unfortunately, very little is done preventively. Reluctance, ignorance or other interests? Mostly it does not come off the ground.

Expanding a road (highway): How does this affect emissions and the environment? Better traffic flow for the economy and industry, but disastrous for the locals and nature. As a municipality or other government, we will reduce the size of the forest. This is safe if someone hits a tree or gets a branch on their head. However, what is the ecological value of those trees to purify the air and compensate for the climate in the area? Does the policy of cutting harm health? Ask about it and many civil servants and/or colleges simply don’t know!

Building distribution centers is good for the local economy, but certainly not for landscape, nature, and public health. Low ground water level is great for heavy farm machinery and there are no wet feet anymore. However, it destroys the nature of the air purifier.

Predictive models

These are all examples of risks to air quality. What’s regularly missing are predictive models that show the effects of more cars, fewer trees, industrialization, groundwater level, etc. on (public) health. An Environmental Impact Report (EIA) alone is not enough.

Intervening (therapeutic) when things go wrong is actually too late. You can reduce emissions temporarily, allow people to stay indoors, ban open fires, paralyze traffic, put administrators on e-bikes, etc. However, the damage is already done.

In short, we are all choking on dust. The harm to health is much greater than the harm done by interventions in agriculture and industry. However, much can be prevented by providing timely insight into causes and effects using and predicting electronic models. Innovative software, hardware and technologies are readily available. Now is the time to move forward with policy and provide big incentives from the healthcare sector using such models. This saves thousands of lives and patients!

Also read this blog by Ulco Schuurmans on tackling climate problems.

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