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Experts are studying the effects of agriculture on fine dust pollution
So-called fine dust is particularly harmful to health because the small particles can penetrate deep into the human lungs. The fine dust comes from many different sources, such as exhaust fumes from factories and cars. Researchers have now found that there is another source of particulate matter that most people may not be aware of. These are agricultural emissions from fertilization and animal husbandry.
The scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz found in their investigation that a reduction in agricultural emissions could significantly reduce the amount of harmful fine dust. The experts published the results of their study in the journal "Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics".
Fertilization and animal husbandry have an impact on fine dust pollution
When it comes to fine dust pollution, many people think of traffic first. Few have fertilization and cattle breeding in mind. But reducing these agricultural emissions could significantly reduce the amount of harmful fine dust, the researchers say. In North America and Europe in particular, a reduction in ammonia emissions (NH3) from fertilization and animal husbandry could greatly reduce the concentration of fine dust particles. If the emissions from agriculture were 50 percent lower, 250,000 deaths worldwide due to air pollution could be prevented, the scientists report.
Particulate matter particles with a diameter smaller than 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5) are particularly dangerous
The World Health Organization (WHO) explains that fine dust particles that are smaller than 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5) in diameter are particularly harmful to health. Such particles can penetrate deep into the human lungs and cause cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.
Air pollution is the fifth leading cause of death worldwide
In many countries around the world, fine dust particles significantly reduce life expectancy, say the doctors. Air pollution is the fifth largest risk factor for causes of death worldwide, experts say. "The particulate matter pollution from traffic is currently being discussed in public, other sources such as agriculture are being neglected," emphasizes Jos Lelieveld, Director of the Atmospheric Chemistry Department at the Mainz Institute in a press release. Particulate matter emissions from motorized vehicles have an impact on local air pollution in metropolitan areas. Most of the fine dust (PM2.5) is only created by chemical processes in the atmosphere during wind transport, says the expert. A general avoidance of ammonia emissions in agriculture could significantly reduce the concentration of fine dust particles in the air, adds Lelieveld.
In 2010, 3.3 million people died from air pollution
A previous study by the Max Planck Institute found that 3.3 million people worldwide died prematurely from the effects of air pollution in 2010 alone. The numbers in such estimates have increased significantly in recent years. Most of the time it was assumed that industry and traffic cause dangerous air pollution. But the use of fuels for heating and cooking and agriculture also play an important role in the problem, the scientists explain.
How are fine dust particles created during fertilization and animal husbandry?
In Europe, the main cause of air pollution is the release of ammonia from animal husbandry and fertilization, the authors say. The nitrogen contained in ammonium is an important nutrient for plants. However, ammonia escapes during the decomposition of liquid manure or through the fertilization of useful plants. Ammonia then gets into the atmosphere and reacts with various inorganic substances. The researchers explain that sulfuric and nitric acid turns into ammonium sulfate and nitrate salts, which then produce fine dust particles.
North America, Europe, South and East Asia are particularly badly affected
Especially in North America, Europe, South and East Asia, the limit values for air pollution are often exceeded. A 50 percent reduction in all agricultural emissions, according to the researchers, would prevent around eight percent of premature deaths caused by air pollution worldwide. In other words, this would mean that the lives of around 250,000 people could be saved each year. If all ammonia emissions were completely stopped, the lives of 800,000 people could theoretically be saved worldwide, the authors add.
The effect of ammonia reduction on fine dust formation is not linear
The effect of ammonia reduction on fine dust formation is not linear. The efficient improvement of air quality only begins at a certain value of the reduction. "From this point on, the effect is exponential," explains lead author Andrea Pozzer, according to the press release from the Max Planck Institute.
How would a reduction in particulate matter exposure work?
When analyzing a model, it was possible to calculate the effects of particulate matter exposure on the death rate from lung cancer, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. For example, Europe would reduce the PM2.5 mortality rate by almost 20 percent by reducing the NH3 by 50 percent, the scientists say. In Europe alone, around 50,000 deaths a year could be avoided. In the United States, a reduction of this magnitude would lead to a reduced death rate of 30 percent. In East and South Asia, however, the computer models showed only minor improvements. In East Asia this was eight percent, in South Asia it was three percent. (as)