Recent NASA Research And Collaboration Shows Elevated Healthcare Costs Associated With Ammonia Pollution From The Food Industry.
Ammonia (NH3), a naturally occurring gas, is found in nature and is also the most commonly produced industrial chemical in the USA. In nature it is part of the nitrogen cycle and it is important for many biological processes. Ammonia in nature is produced from decomposition of organic matter, plants, animals and animal waste. We are exposed to low ammonia on a daily basis with no harmful issues. However, recently NASA-funded research has been looking at the health costs from air pollution associated with food produced for export – a growing sector of agriculture and a source of trade surplus.
From the article, “[manure] from livestock and fertilizer for crops release ammonia to the atmosphere. In the air, ammonia mixes with other emissions to form microscopic airborne particles, or particulates. The particulates that pose the greatest health risk are those that measure no more than 2.5 micrometers across, or about 1/30 the width of a human hair, which when inhaled can become lodged deep within the lungs. Long-term exposure has been linked to heart and lung diseases and even death. As such, the particles are on the list of six common air pollutants regulated by EPA's National Ambient Air Quality Standards.”
To paraphrase the most important part of the article, Harvard University researchers Fabien Paulot and Daniel Jacob, calculate the health cost associated with the ammonia emissions from agriculture exports to be $36 billion a year or, they figure, $100 per kilogram of ammonia. This is a higher amount than the EPA’s estimate of $47 per kilogram of ammonia. Just because the ammonia is in the air does not mean that it is going to form the particulates as many factors go into the formation.
What their research went on to show is that ammonia emissions from agriculture accounts for 11 percent of the total emission in the USA. And that the largest health costs are found in more populated states in the Northeast and Great Lakes region. This is because the areas downwind from the agricultural regions are full of the sulfate and nitric acid as a result of the traffic, power plants and pollution. This then creates the perfect combination to produce the particulates that will then get into our bodies and cause health issues. This is heartbreaking news for me, as I have family and friends that live in the ‘ground zero’ of the NASA map.
What does this mean for all of us? I don’t think we fully know yet. This is going to be something we are going to have to keep our eyes on to see what the long term ramifications are. Maybe this will help us open our eyes to how food in this country is produced. Full disclosure here as I am a vegetarian, but is our desire for meat out weighing the reality of our health and economy? These kinds of studies are important because they help us to understand the true cost of our diet standards in this country, and what is considered a ‘balanced’ diet. I am sure this is not the last time the ammonia story will come up in the news.