Joggers know the problem. Every time you jog close to a road with a little more traffic than just an occasional vehicle, an eerie feeling creeps up on you. All this exhaust from the vehicles can sure be no good for me. Wouldn’t it be better to do our rounds in a piece of woods or at least in a park?
However, is this fear from the exhaust grounded in reality?
It sounds ridiculous, but there is barely any difference in doing your miles aside a highly frequented freeway or inside an air-conditioned gym on the treadmill. It also does not really matter if you would go far away into some lonely mountain valley.
At least from a health point of view. Why is that?
Why are we afraid of freeways (rightfully so) or indeed from any street. Yes, you are right. Those exhaust gasses are not good for us. Why this is barely any better in a mountain valley as compared to a busy freeway becomes evident when we look closer at what we are inhaling here. Let’s look at a diesel exhaust as the most egregious example.
The lion’s share of the diesel exhaust is composed of benign nitrogen – 72% of it in fact. Additionally, there is a little less than 20% CO2 and about 8% water vapor. Have you done the math? 72 plus 20 plus 8 makes a full 100% but since both the CO2 and the water vapor is a sliver less than the given percentages we get exactly 99,913 percent. The remainder of 0,087 percent is mainly nitrogen oxides, CO and SOx, uncombusted hydrocarbons and fine particles (often called particulate matter or PM). Within this remainder, nitrogen oxides and CO occupy the lion’s share with 0,086 percent and everything else including PM comes down to only 0,001 percent.
For some sort of comparison – a bottle of spring water usually contains 1,5 liters. A little more than one liter of that would represent the nitrogen, 1/4 of a liter would represent the CO2. Nitrogen Oxides, CO, SOx, uncombusted hydrocarbons, and PM would represent a thimble full. The PM actually comes down to the volume of a micro SIM card. Just put that right in your mind – a micro SIM in a 1,5-liter water bottle.
Doesn’t look like much especially if one looks at the plentiful CO2 that more resembles a 0,33l Coke bottle volume wise.
However, this whiff of PM packs a punch. CO2 is not toxic – PM is, highly so. Its toxicity is determined by two factors.
Let’s hit its molecular composition first. Particulate Matter also originates from natural sources such as fungi, pollen from grass and flowers or even ultrafine beach sand. In diesel’s case, the particulates are loaded with ultra toxic substances such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, sulfuric acid, and other non-combusted hydrocarbons just to call some examples.
Way more important is particle size. Smaller particles travel deeper into the body. Regular particulate matter just goes to the bronchia, where they remain stuck in the mucous membranes and are mostly expelled through coughing.
From a regulatory point of view (I am talking about those authorities that are in charge of environmental protection here), only particles bigger than one micrometer are measured and hence also regulated. Just to be clear – one micrometer is the size of a bacteria. Cancer cells are usually 10 times larger – human body cells, pollen, and spores are about 100 times bigger than that. One micrometer is the thousandth of a millimeter. You can see dust that fine with your bare eye as some layer of superfine powder.
Anything smaller than this is called Nano particulates. 1000 Nanometers are one micrometer and hence 1.000.000 nanometers is one millimeter. That’s so small, that most countries don’t measure this kind of particulates anymore. For clarification – a flu virus is about 100 nanometers wide, complex proteins are about 10 nanometers on average and normal molecules such as glucose (sugar) are just a mere one nanometer.
Anything as small as 1000 nanometers goes straight to the alveoles, which means into the deepest parts of our lungs. If those particles are smaller than 100 nanometers, they traverse the membranes those alveoles are made of and hence they go straight to the bloodstream and travel through to the entire body. If they are smaller than 10 nanometers they even transfer through the cellular membranes and eventually reach the cellular core where our DNA can be altered.
This means, that our genetic information is altered by diesel exhaust and some of those mutations can be passed to our offspring. This may lead to cancer and a whole plethora of other conditions such as asthma, cardiac problems, and dementia.
Fine particulate matter makes us very sick and stupid and it’s essentially the ultra fine matter that is to be blamed. This ultra fine matter comes into existence mainly as a result of high-temperature, high-pressure combustion as it happens in modern, so-called clean diesel engines.
You will reply that those vehicles are equipped with a particulate filter and that this is consequently not a problem. However, those filters just remove very coarse particles but not the ultra fine ones from the exhaust stream. And as the EURO diesel regulation limits its scope to particles of more than 1000 nanometers and more – they are utterly ineffective. It is at exactly this size, where things get real nasty and it’s there where we stop measuring and filtering. We don’t regulate the stuff that harms us most.
This also means, that the rules by which the logistics industry and their large diesel vehicles is held to account are completely ineffective in their objective to protect public health. The logistics industry must pay a steep price in order to comply with standards that cannot even protect us. Our buildings may not be black as a result of the diesel soot so we don’t see the problem anymore. And if we don’t see it – it does not exist as a problem. Ain’t that so?
However, when you are confronted with a cancer diagnosis or when your doctor tells you that you heart is almost failing, you may blame poor choices in lifestyle. But at least part of it might also be caused by this ultra-fine dust. However, as this ultra fine dust also reinforces dementia, this might not matter very long as you will progressively lose control over your brain and if your brain does not work properly, hard thoughts about deadly dust are not such a big issue anymore – aren’t they?
You will sure think that the air in an alpine valley will be better than what you will breathe next to a busy freeway. Except that – this is not true. Ultra fine matter (and that’s what we talk about) does not really behave like the dust you know. It’s more like an aerosol. Regular dust gets carried away with streams of air but gravity still has enough of a pull on it that it eventually settles on some surface. In this case – distance is really a factor as the farther away one is from the source, the more of the dust has settled and is thus not in the air anymore.
Aerosols, on the other hand, behave very differently as they are a part of the atmosphere and hence carry all over the planet. Gravity pulls much less on them and the rest of the atmosphere is like the sea for a jellyfish. Aerosols are similar to gasses and as long as there is not something that attracts them through adhesion (that could be the membrane of alveoli) they continue to float.
This makes the aerosol the true marathon man in air particles. You believe the Nigerian go slow (traffic jam) does not affect your air quality in the US? Think again. They produce just as many aerosols and those travel the planet all the way to the Rockies valleys. This makes ultrafine particles a global problem just as CO2 is. Contrary to CO2, those ultra fine particles are extremely toxic as well.
This means that those particles distribute over the entire planet and evenly distribute everywhere – even to such faraway places as Antarctica. Besides, your regular pollen filter in your car or office won’t remove it from the air either as those particles are way to small to be affected by such coarse filtering mechanisms. You would need very expensive specialist filters but once they are installed you better don’t open the door anymore and you even better seal the place where you are indefinite. A bit like a nuclear fallout shelter.
And now comes the best. Once this stuff is in your organism, it’s not easy to remove any more. Genetic damage remains as it is but when you reproduce, you pass on your particulate caused mutations to your offspring. This means that the particulates you breathe in today might have an impact on the health of your newborn and it thus inherits our pollution through genetic defects. Looking at the rapid rise of diesel vehicles, the current torrential rise of serious conditions such as cancer in young people, asthma, all kinds of otherwise rare genetic disorders, autism, and a wide array of otherwise rare but serious and often incurable defects appear under a very different light.
We cannot avoid ultra fine particulates once they have been produced and enter our habitat. And most of this real nasty stuff is produced by so-called clean diesel engines as they only produce temperatures and pressures required to make particles really small. Even if vehicles cause only one-quarter of all particulate matter, diesel engines produce almost the entirety of all ultra-fine particulates.
What’s the only real antidote then? Not producing this potent poison in the first place. And this is only possible if we use propulsion technologies that don’t produce this ultra fine matter at all. The only combustion engine that reliably does not produce it is the methane engine running on Natural Gas or Biogas. The lubricant is still responsible for microscopic volumes of normal particles but the very dangerous ultrafine particles are avoided completely. If there are no particles, we also don’t need filters and also don’t need to measure anymore. And only LNG gives you the range and the fuelling convenience you need for modern logistics. That’s the silver bullet that can kill the particulate monster quickly.
It’s a fortunate coincidence that most other pollutants besides particulates go down with LNG as well, most of the time dramatically so. This includes CO2 but that’s another story. If we don’t tame the particulate monster, we won’t have to worry bout climate change as we won’t see its effects anymore. And this damage piles up as what’s inside your cells, usually stays inside.
Modern clean diesel regulation has made the situation worse as those engines produce particles we did not really have to deal with so far. EURO 6 (and it’s counterparts everywhere on earth) have reduced nasty emissions and made them much more lethal for us. What a deal with the devil.