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Research Clarifies Health Costs of Air Pollution from 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.
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