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Fine dust - the invisible poison

Dialogue Forum on 16 March 2021

Millions of deaths worldwide every year are due to fine dust. And the problem is getting worse because the concentration of small and minute particles in the atmosphere is increasing. Who are the biggest emitters and how can pollution be reduced? These and other questions were discussed by our speakers at the third Dialogue Forum 2021 of the "Small things, big effect" series. 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) classifies air pollution as the greatest risk to our health. About seven million people die every year as a result of this pollution, especially in China and India. But because we all have to breathe and fine dust knows no boundaries, no one can escape the increasing concentration of harmful particles from combustion processes, tyre wear, industry and agriculture. According to the WHO, nine out of ten people are exposed to high levels of pollutants. To make matters worse: "With air pollutants, there is no boundary between harmful and harmless. Even the smallest amounts can endanger health," warned Dr. Bettina Hoffmann, federal policy spokesperson for environmental policy and environmental health for the Green Party. 

Culture of pollution prevention necessary

Therefore, it is important that the limit values set by the WHO are adhered to, which is by no means the case everywhere. In order to implement the EU's right to clean air, a culture of pollution prevention is needed. Otherwise, Germany would miss its self-imposed target of reducing pollutant emissions by 45 per cent by 2030 compared to 2005. "We should move forward courageously and not be afraid of overly ambitious targets, which can ultimately prove to be a driver for innovation and technical progress," Hoffmann said.

Dr. Alexandra Schneider, head of the working group "Environmental Risks" at the Institute of Epidemiology at Helmholtz Zentrum München, also called for stricter limit values in this country and complained: "A limit value for ultrafine particles smaller than 100 nanometres (one billionth of a metre) is still pending. They are more toxic than the larger particles." Whereby, of course, it depends on where the fine dust comes from and how it is chemically composed. "Particles from Saharan sand, which occur here, have a completely different effect than soot from the exhaust pipe," the expert explained. Ultrafine nanoparticles are particularly dangerous because they migrate directly from the lungs into the bloodstream and cells and can even pass the blood-brain barrier.

A limit value for ultrafine particles smaller than 100 nanometres (one billionth of a metre) is still pending. They are more toxic than the larger particles.
Alexandra Schneider
Working Group "Environmental Risks" at the Institute of Epidemiology of Helmholtz Zentrum München, German Research Center for Environmental Health

Creating a triple-win situation

We are not powerless in this regard. Local measures can quickly improve air quality and thus health. According to Schneider, this has been shown by the Corona lockdown or the measures taken at the Olympic Games in Beijing. The environmental expert advocates a lifestyle that relies on less motorised transport in favour of more physical activity. "Then we would have a win-win-win situation: less greenhouse gases, better air and positive effects on cardiovascular diseases."

Analogous to the desired CO2 neutrality, Peter Sänger, CEO of the Berlin start-up Green City Solutions, advocates fine dust neutrality. His proposal: "Particulate matter emissions must be given a price so that people can see how much economic damage is caused by premature deaths or more illnesses." Air quality also matters for Corona, he said, because people with pre-existing conditions such as asthma or cardiovascular disease are more at risk of developing severe symptoms. "Continuously breathing bad air has its consequences. Living in London for a year is about as harmful as smoking 300 cigarettes," he clarified.

Particulate matter emissions must be given a price so that people can see how much economic damage is caused by premature deaths or more illnesses.
Peter Sänger
Green City Solutions

City Tree filters pollutants

Green City Solutions deals with the question of how innovations and technologies can contribute to reducing fine dust in the air near the ground in cities. To this end, the company has developed a system that uses moss cultures to filter the air - the City Tree. According to the company, it is the first verifiable bio-tech filter that improves air quality by combining natural moss filters with smart Internet of Things (IoT) technology. The system is sustainable because moss is able to metabolise particulate matter into biomass. In the long term, one could even imagine a kind of vertical farming in which the City Tree technology is used in façade construction. However, one would then have to comply with many regulations that could be disregarded in the case of a simple city tree, Sänger pointed out.

Green Party representative Hoffmann is aware that politics has not yet properly addressed the fine dust problem: "We keep having an oblique debate in the Bundestag about whether the limit values are low enough to protect people on the one hand and leave enough leeway for exceptions on the other." She pleads for strict limit values according to the precautionary principle, which must be observed everywhere.

One reason for the rather timid policy action could be that the public is not really aware of the link between air pollution and deaths. For example, lung cancer or heart disease are often cited as causes of death, even though they may be due to microparticles. And because air pollution is a complex issue with many causes, there are no easy solutions. That's because each emitter, whether in transport, industry or agriculture, must be negotiated to determine how much they can contribute to better air quality. "We can do more and the population also wants more," Hoffmann is certain.

We keep having an oblique debate in the Bundestag about whether the limit values are low enough to protect people on the one hand and leave enough leeway for exceptions on the other.
Bettina Hoffmann
Bündnis 90/Die Grünen

Clear demands on politics

Some sources of fine dust are not even on people's radar, be it the smoke from private wood stoves, the burning of incense sticks or the lighting of candles. According to Hoffmann, large amounts of secondary fine dust are also produced in agriculture, for example when fields are fertilised. The Federal Environment Agency estimates the share of these emissions in total emissions at about 20 per cent, the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry even at up to 45 per cent.

Environmental politician Hoffmann demands that policy-makers should give priority to agriculture because the savings potential there is particularly large. Helmholtz expert Schneider, on the other hand, has her sights set primarily on motorised traffic, because in addition to fewer pollutants, this also means a better quality of life in the cities. GreenCitySolutions Managing Director Sänger relies on fiscal incentives instead of bans: "In this way, we can encourage road users and industry to switch to alternatives. "And, of course, each of us has it in our own hands every day to keep our individual pollution footprint as small as possible.”

The next dialogue forum will take place on 15 April 2021 on the topic "CO2 - valuable material or climate killer?”    

 

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18. March 2021

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