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    Coordinating climate and air-quality policies to improve public health

    As America’s largest investment to fight climate change, the Inflation Reduction Act positions the country to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. But as it edges the United States closer to achieving its international climate commitment, the legislation is also expected to yield significant — and more immediate — improvements in the nation’s health. If successful in accelerating the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy alternatives, the IRA will sharply reduce atmospheric concentrations of fine particulates known to exacerbate respiratory and cardiovascular disease and cause premature deaths, along with other air pollutants that degrade human health. One recent study shows that eliminating air pollution from fossil fuels in the contiguous United States would prevent more than 50,000 premature deaths and avoid more than $600 billion in health costs each year.

    While national climate policies such as those advanced by the IRA can simultaneously help mitigate climate change and improve air quality, their results may vary widely when it comes to improving public health. That’s because the potential health benefits associated with air quality improvements are much greater in some regions and economic sectors than in others. Those benefits can be maximized, however, through a prudent combination of climate and air-quality policies.

    Several past studies have evaluated the likely health impacts of various policy combinations, but their usefulness has been limited due to a reliance on a small set of standard policy scenarios. More versatile tools are needed to model a wide range of climate and air-quality policy combinations and assess their collective effects on air quality and human health. Now researchers at the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change and MIT Institute for Data, Systems and Society (IDSS) have developed a publicly available, flexible scenario tool that does just that.

    In a study published in the journal Geoscientific Model Development, the MIT team introduces its Tool for Air Pollution Scenarios (TAPS), which can be used to estimate the likely air-quality and health outcomes of a wide range of climate and air-quality policies at the regional, sectoral, and fuel-based level. 

    “This tool can help integrate the siloed sustainability issues of air pollution and climate action,” says the study’s lead author William Atkinson, who recently served as a Biogen Graduate Fellow and research assistant at the IDSS Technology and Policy Program’s (TPP) Research to Policy Engagement Initiative. “Climate action does not guarantee a clean air future, and vice versa — but the issues have similar sources that imply shared solutions if done right.”

    The study’s initial application of TAPS shows that with current air-quality policies and near-term Paris Agreement climate pledges alone, short-term pollution reductions give way to long-term increases — given the expected growth of emissions-intensive industrial and agricultural processes in developing regions. More ambitious climate and air-quality policies could be complementary, each reducing different pollutants substantially to give tremendous near- and long-term health benefits worldwide.

    “The significance of this work is that we can more confidently identify the long-term emission reduction strategies that also support air quality improvements,” says MIT Joint Program Deputy Director C. Adam Schlosser, a co-author of the study. “This is a win-win for setting climate targets that are also healthy targets.”

    TAPS projects air quality and health outcomes based on three integrated components: a recent global inventory of detailed emissions resulting from human activities (e.g., fossil fuel combustion, land-use change, industrial processes); multiple scenarios of emissions-generating human activities between now and the year 2100, produced by the MIT Economic Projection and Policy Analysis model; and emissions intensity (emissions per unit of activity) scenarios based on recent data from the Greenhouse Gas and Air Pollution Interactions and Synergies model.

    “We see the climate crisis as a health crisis, and believe that evidence-based approaches are key to making the most of this historic investment in the future, particularly for vulnerable communities,” says Johanna Jobin, global head of corporate reputation and responsibility at Biogen. “The scientific community has spoken with unanimity and alarm that not all climate-related actions deliver equal health benefits. We’re proud of our collaboration with the MIT Joint Program to develop this tool that can be used to bridge research-to-policy gaps, support policy decisions to promote health among vulnerable communities, and train the next generation of scientists and leaders for far-reaching impact.”

    The tool can inform decision-makers about a wide range of climate and air-quality policies. Policy scenarios can be applied to specific regions, sectors, or fuels to investigate policy combinations at a more granular level, or to target short-term actions with high-impact benefits.

    TAPS could be further developed to account for additional emissions sources and trends.

    “Our new tool could be used to examine a large range of both climate and air quality scenarios. As the framework is expanded, we can add detail for specific regions, as well as additional pollutants such as air toxics,” says study supervising co-author Noelle Selin, professor at IDSS and the MIT Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, and director of TPP.    

    This research was supported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program; Biogen; TPP’s Leading Technology and Policy Initiative; and TPP’s Research to Policy Engagement Initiative. More

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    In-home wireless device tracks disease progression in Parkinson’s patients

    Parkinson’s disease is the fastest-growing neurological disease, now affecting more than 10 million people worldwide, yet clinicians still face huge challenges in tracking its severity and progression.

    Clinicians typically evaluate patients by testing their motor skills and cognitive functions during clinic visits. These semisubjective measurements are often skewed by outside factors — perhaps a patient is tired after a long drive to the hospital. More than 40 percent of individuals with Parkinson’s are never treated by a neurologist or Parkinson’s specialist, often because they live too far from an urban center or have difficulty traveling.

    In an effort to address these problems, researchers from MIT and elsewhere demonstrated an in-home device that can monitor a patient’s movement and gait speed, which can be used to evaluate Parkinson’s severity, the progression of the disease, and the patient’s response to medication.

    The device, which is about the size of a Wi-Fi router, gathers data passively using radio signals that reflect off the patient’s body as they move around their home. The patient does not need to wear a gadget or change their behavior. (A recent study, for example, showed that this type of device could be used to detect Parkinson’s from a person’s breathing patterns while sleeping.)

    The researchers used these devices to conduct a one-year at-home study with 50 participants. They showed that, by using machine-learning algorithms to analyze the troves of data they passively gathered (more than 200,000 gait speed measurements), a clinician could track Parkinson’s progression and medication response more effectively than they would with periodic, in-clinic evaluations.

    “By being able to have a device in the home that can monitor a patient and tell the doctor remotely about the progression of the disease, and the patient’s medication response so they can attend to the patient even if the patient can’t come to the clinic — now they have real, reliable information — that actually goes a long way toward improving equity and access,” says senior author Dina Katabi, the Thuan and Nicole Pham Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS), and a principle investigator in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and the MIT Jameel Clinic.

    The co-lead authors are EECS graduate students Yingcheng Liu and Guo Zhang. The research is published today in Science Translational Medicine.

    A human radar

    This work utilizes a wireless device previously developed in the Katabi lab that analyzes radio signals that bounce off people’s bodies. It transmits signals that use a tiny fraction of the power of a Wi-Fi router — these super-low-power signals don’t interfere with other wireless devices in the home. While radio signals pass through walls and other solid objects, they are reflected off humans due to the water in our bodies.  

    This creates a “human radar” that can track the movement of a person in a room. Radio waves always travel at the same speed, so the length of time it takes the signals to reflect back to the device indicates how the person is moving.

    The device incorporates a machine-learning classifier that can pick out the precise radio signals reflected off the patient even when there are other people moving around the room. Advanced algorithms use these movement data to compute gait speed — how fast the person is walking.

    Because the device operates in the background and runs all day, every day, it can collect a massive amount of data. The researchers wanted to see if they could apply machine learning to these datasets to gain insights about the disease over time.

    They gathered 50 participants, 34 of whom had Parkinson’s, and conducted a one-year study of in-home gait measurements Through the study, the researchers collected more than 200,000 individual measurements that they averaged to smooth out variability due to the conditions irrelevant to the disease. (For example, a patient may hurry up to answer an alarm or walk slower when talking on the phone.)

    They used statistical methods to analyze the data and found that in-home gait speed can be used to effectively track Parkinson’s progression and severity. For instance, they showed that gait speed declined almost twice as fast for individuals with Parkinson’s, compared to those without. 

    “Monitoring the patient continuously as they move around the room enabled us to get really good measurements of their gait speed. And with so much data, we were able to perform aggregation that allowed us to see very small differences,” Zhang says.

    Better, faster results

    Drilling down on these variabilities offered some key insights. For instance, the researchers showed that daily fluctuations in a patient’s walking speed correspond with how they are responding to their medication — walking speed may improve after a dose and then begin to decline after a few hours, as the medication impact wears off.

    “This enables us to objectively measure how your mobility responds to your medication. Previously, this was very cumbersome to do because this medication effect could only be measured by having the patient keep a journal,” Liu says.

    A clinician could use these data to adjust medication dosage more effectively and accurately. This is especially important since drugs used to treat disease symptoms can cause serious side effects if the patient receives too much.

    The researchers were able to demonstrate statistically significant results regarding Parkinson’s progression after studying 50 people for just one year. By contrast, an often-cited study by the Michael J. Fox Foundation involved more than 500 individuals and monitored them for more than five years, Katabi says.

    “For a pharmaceutical company or a biotech company trying to develop medicines for this disease, this could greatly reduce the burden and cost and speed up the development of new therapies,” she adds.

    Katabi credits much of the study’s success to the dedicated team of scientists and clinicians who worked together to tackle the many difficulties that arose along the way. For one, they began the study before the Covid-19 pandemic, so team members initially visited people’s homes to set up the devices. When that was no longer possible, they developed a user-friendly phone app to remotely help participants as they deployed the device at home.

    Through the course of the study, they learned to automate processes and reduce effort, especially for the participants and clinical team.

    This knowledge will prove useful as they look to deploy devices in at-home studies of other neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer’s, ALS, and Huntington’s. They also want to explore how these methods could be used, in conjunction with other work from the Katabi lab showing that Parkinson’s can be diagnosed by monitoring breathing, to collect a holistic set of markers that could diagnose the disease early and then be used to track and treat it.

    “This radio-wave sensor can enable more care (and research) to migrate from hospitals to the home where it is most desired and needed,” says Ray Dorsey, a professor of neurology at the University of Rochester Medical Center, co-author of Ending Parkinson’s, and a co-author of this research paper. “Its potential is just beginning to be seen. We are moving toward a day where we can diagnose and predict disease at home. In the future, we may even be able to predict and ideally prevent events like falls and heart attacks.”

    This work is supported, in part, by the National Institutes of Health and the Michael J. Fox Foundation. More

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    Artificial intelligence predicts patients’ race from their medical images

    The miseducation of algorithms is a critical problem; when artificial intelligence mirrors unconscious thoughts, racism, and biases of the humans who generated these algorithms, it can lead to serious harm. Computer programs, for example, have wrongly flagged Black defendants as twice as likely to reoffend as someone who’s white. When an AI used cost as a proxy for health needs, it falsely named Black patients as healthier than equally sick white ones, as less money was spent on them. Even AI used to write a play relied on using harmful stereotypes for casting. 

    Removing sensitive features from the data seems like a viable tweak. But what happens when it’s not enough? 

    Examples of bias in natural language processing are boundless — but MIT scientists have investigated another important, largely underexplored modality: medical images. Using both private and public datasets, the team found that AI can accurately predict self-reported race of patients from medical images alone. Using imaging data of chest X-rays, limb X-rays, chest CT scans, and mammograms, the team trained a deep learning model to identify race as white, Black, or Asian — even though the images themselves contained no explicit mention of the patient’s race. This is a feat even the most seasoned physicians cannot do, and it’s not clear how the model was able to do this. 

    In an attempt to tease out and make sense of the enigmatic “how” of it all, the researchers ran a slew of experiments. To investigate possible mechanisms of race detection, they looked at variables like differences in anatomy, bone density, resolution of images — and many more, and the models still prevailed with high ability to detect race from chest X-rays. “These results were initially confusing, because the members of our research team could not come anywhere close to identifying a good proxy for this task,” says paper co-author Marzyeh Ghassemi, an assistant professor in the MIT Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES), who is an affiliate of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and of the MIT Jameel Clinic. “Even when you filter medical images past where the images are recognizable as medical images at all, deep models maintain a very high performance. That is concerning because superhuman capacities are generally much more difficult to control, regulate, and prevent from harming people.”

    In a clinical setting, algorithms can help tell us whether a patient is a candidate for chemotherapy, dictate the triage of patients, or decide if a movement to the ICU is necessary. “We think that the algorithms are only looking at vital signs or laboratory tests, but it’s possible they’re also looking at your race, ethnicity, sex, whether you’re incarcerated or not — even if all of that information is hidden,” says paper co-author Leo Anthony Celi, principal research scientist in IMES at MIT and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. “Just because you have representation of different groups in your algorithms, that doesn’t guarantee it won’t perpetuate or magnify existing disparities and inequities. Feeding the algorithms with more data with representation is not a panacea. This paper should make us pause and truly reconsider whether we are ready to bring AI to the bedside.” 

    The study, “AI recognition of patient race in medical imaging: a modeling study,” was published in Lancet Digital Health on May 11. Celi and Ghassemi wrote the paper alongside 20 other authors in four countries.

    To set up the tests, the scientists first showed that the models were able to predict race across multiple imaging modalities, various datasets, and diverse clinical tasks, as well as across a range of academic centers and patient populations in the United States. They used three large chest X-ray datasets, and tested the model on an unseen subset of the dataset used to train the model and a completely different one. Next, they trained the racial identity detection models for non-chest X-ray images from multiple body locations, including digital radiography, mammography, lateral cervical spine radiographs, and chest CTs to see whether the model’s performance was limited to chest X-rays. 

    The team covered many bases in an attempt to explain the model’s behavior: differences in physical characteristics between different racial groups (body habitus, breast density), disease distribution (previous studies have shown that Black patients have a higher incidence for health issues like cardiac disease), location-specific or tissue specific differences, effects of societal bias and environmental stress, the ability of deep learning systems to detect race when multiple demographic and patient factors were combined, and if specific image regions contributed to recognizing race. 

    What emerged was truly staggering: The ability of the models to predict race from diagnostic labels alone was much lower than the chest X-ray image-based models. 

    For example, the bone density test used images where the thicker part of the bone appeared white, and the thinner part appeared more gray or translucent. Scientists assumed that since Black people generally have higher bone mineral density, the color differences helped the AI models to detect race. To cut that off, they clipped the images with a filter, so the model couldn’t color differences. It turned out that cutting off the color supply didn’t faze the model — it still could accurately predict races. (The “Area Under the Curve” value, meaning the measure of the accuracy of a quantitative diagnostic test, was 0.94–0.96). As such, the learned features of the model appeared to rely on all regions of the image, meaning that controlling this type of algorithmic behavior presents a messy, challenging problem. 

    The scientists acknowledge limited availability of racial identity labels, which caused them to focus on Asian, Black, and white populations, and that their ground truth was a self-reported detail. Other forthcoming work will include potentially looking at isolating different signals before image reconstruction, because, as with bone density experiments, they couldn’t account for residual bone tissue that was on the images. 

    Notably, other work by Ghassemi and Celi led by MIT student Hammaad Adam has found that models can also identify patient self-reported race from clinical notes even when those notes are stripped of explicit indicators of race. Just as in this work, human experts are not able to accurately predict patient race from the same redacted clinical notes.

    “We need to bring social scientists into the picture. Domain experts, which are usually the clinicians, public health practitioners, computer scientists, and engineers are not enough. Health care is a social-cultural problem just as much as it’s a medical problem. We need another group of experts to weigh in and to provide input and feedback on how we design, develop, deploy, and evaluate these algorithms,” says Celi. “We need to also ask the data scientists, before any exploration of the data, are there disparities? Which patient groups are marginalized? What are the drivers of those disparities? Is it access to care? Is it from the subjectivity of the care providers? If we don’t understand that, we won’t have a chance of being able to identify the unintended consequences of the algorithms, and there’s no way we’ll be able to safeguard the algorithms from perpetuating biases.”

    “The fact that algorithms ‘see’ race, as the authors convincingly document, can be dangerous. But an important and related fact is that, when used carefully, algorithms can also work to counter bias,” says Ziad Obermeyer, associate professor at the University of California at Berkeley, whose research focuses on AI applied to health. “In our own work, led by computer scientist Emma Pierson at Cornell, we show that algorithms that learn from patients’ pain experiences can find new sources of knee pain in X-rays that disproportionately affect Black patients — and are disproportionately missed by radiologists. So just like any tool, algorithms can be a force for evil or a force for good — which one depends on us, and the choices we make when we build algorithms.”

    The work is supported, in part, by the National Institutes of Health. More

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    MIT collaborates with Biogen on three-year, $7 million initiative to address climate, health, and equity

    MIT and Biogen have announced that they will collaborate with the goal to accelerate the science and action on climate change to improve human health. This collaboration is supported by a three-year, $7 million commitment from the company and the Biogen Foundation. The biotechnology company, headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts’ Kendall Square, discovers and develops therapies for people living with serious neurological diseases.

    “We have long believed it is imperative for Biogen to make the fight against climate change central to our long-term corporate responsibility commitments. Through this collaboration with MIT, we aim to identify and share innovative climate solutions that will deliver co-benefits for both health and equity,” says Michel Vounatsos, CEO of Biogen. “We are also proud to support the MIT Museum, which promises to make world-class science and education accessible to all, and honor Biogen co-founder Phillip A. Sharp with a dedication inside the museum that recognizes his contributions to its development.”

    Biogen and the Biogen Foundation are supporting research and programs across a range of areas at MIT.

    Advancing climate, health, and equity

    The first such effort involves new work within the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change to establish a state-of-the-art integrated model of climate and health aimed at identifying targets that deliver climate and health co-benefits.

    “Evidence suggests that not all climate-related actions deliver equal health benefits, yet policymakers, planners, and stakeholders traditionally lack the tools to consider how decisions in one arena impact the other,” says C. Adam Schlosser, deputy director of the MIT Joint Program. “Biogen’s collaboration with the MIT Joint Program — and its support of a new distinguished Biogen Fellow who will develop the new climate/health model — will accelerate our efforts to provide decision-makers with these tools.”

    Biogen is also supporting the MIT Technology and Policy Program’s Research to Policy Engagement Initiative to infuse human health as a key new consideration in decision-making on the best pathways forward to address the global climate crisis, and bridge the knowledge-to-action gap by connecting policymakers, researchers, and diverse stakeholders. As part of this work, Biogen is underwriting a distinguished Biogen Fellow to advance new research on climate, health, and equity.

    “Our work with Biogen has allowed us to make progress on key questions that matter to human health and well-being under climate change,” says Noelle Eckley Selin, who directs the MIT Technology and Policy Program and is a professor in the MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. “Further, their support of the Research to Policy Engagement Initiative helps all of our research become more effective in making change.”

    In addition, Biogen has joined 13 other companies in the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium (MCSC), which is supporting faculty and student research and developing impact pathways that present a range of actionable steps that companies can take — within and across industries — to advance progress toward climate targets.

    “Biogen joining the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium represents our commitment to working with member companies across a diverse range of industries, an approach that aims to drive changes swift and broad enough to match the scale of the climate challenge,” says Jeremy Gregory, executive director of the MCSC. “We are excited to welcome a member from the biotechnology space and look forward to harnessing Biogen’s perspectives as we continue to collaborate and work together with the MIT community in exciting and meaningful ways.”

    Making world-class science and education available to MIT Museum visitors

    Support from Biogen will honor Nobel laureate, MIT Institute professor, and Biogen co-founder Phillip A. Sharp with a named space inside the new Kendall Square location of the MIT Museum, set to open in spring 2022. Biogen also is supporting one of the museum’s opening exhibitions, “Essential MIT,” with a section focused on solving real-world problems such as climate change. It is also providing programmatic support for the museum’s Life Sciences Maker Engagement Program.

    “Phil has provided fantastic support to the MIT Museum for more than a decade as an advisory board member and now as board chair, and he has been deeply involved in plans for the new museum at Kendall Square,” says John Durant, the Mark R. Epstein (Class of 1963) Director of the museum. “Seeing his name on the wall will be a constant reminder of his key role in this development, as well as a mark of our gratitude.”

    Inspiring and empowering the next generation of scientists

    Biogen funding is also being directed to engage the next generation of scientists through support for the Biogen-MIT Biotech in Action: Virtual Lab, a program designed to foster a love of science among diverse and under-served student populations.

    Biogen’s support is part of its Healthy Climate, Healthy Lives initiative, a $250 million, 20-year commitment to eliminate fossil fuels across its operations and collaborate with renowned institutions to advance the science of climate and health and support under-served communities. Additional support is provided by the Biogen Foundation to further its long-standing focus on providing students with equitable access to outstanding science education. More

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    Study: Global cancer risk from burning organic matter comes from unregulated chemicals

    Whenever organic matter is burned, such as in a wildfire, a power plant, a car’s exhaust, or in daily cooking, the combustion releases polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) — a class of pollutants that is known to cause lung cancer.

    There are more than 100 known types of PAH compounds emitted daily into the atmosphere. Regulators, however, have historically relied on measurements of a single compound, benzo(a)pyrene, to gauge a community’s risk of developing cancer from PAH exposure. Now MIT scientists have found that benzo(a)pyrene may be a poor indicator of this type of cancer risk.

    In a modeling study appearing today in the journal GeoHealth, the team reports that benzo(a)pyrene plays a small part — about 11 percent — in the global risk of developing PAH-associated cancer. Instead, 89 percent of that cancer risk comes from other PAH compounds, many of which are not directly regulated.

    Interestingly, about 17 percent of PAH-associated cancer risk comes from “degradation products” — chemicals that are formed when emitted PAHs react in the atmosphere. Many of these degradation products can in fact be more toxic than the emitted PAH from which they formed.

    The team hopes the results will encourage scientists and regulators to look beyond benzo(a)pyrene, to consider a broader class of PAHs when assessing a community’s cancer risk.

    “Most of the regulatory science and standards for PAHs are based on benzo(a)pyrene levels. But that is a big blind spot that could lead you down a very wrong path in terms of assessing whether cancer risk is improving or not, and whether it’s relatively worse in one place than another,” says study author Noelle Selin, a professor in MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems and Society, and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences.

    Selin’s MIT co-authors include Jesse Kroll, Amy Hrdina, Ishwar Kohale, Forest White, and Bevin Engelward, and Jamie Kelly (who is now at University College London). Peter Ivatt and Mathew Evans at the University of York are also co-authors.

    Chemical pixels

    Benzo(a)pyrene has historically been the poster chemical for PAH exposure. The compound’s indicator status is largely based on early toxicology studies. But recent research suggests the chemical may not be the PAH representative that regulators have long relied upon.   

    “There has been a bit of evidence suggesting benzo(a)pyrene may not be very important, but this was from just a few field studies,” says Kelly, a former postdoc in Selin’s group and the study’s lead author.

    Kelly and his colleagues instead took a systematic approach to evaluate benzo(a)pyrene’s suitability as a PAH indicator. The team began by using GEOS-Chem, a global, three-dimensional chemical transport model that breaks the world into individual grid boxes and simulates within each box the reactions and concentrations of chemicals in the atmosphere.

    They extended this model to include chemical descriptions of how various PAH compounds, including benzo(a)pyrene, would react in the atmosphere. The team then plugged in recent data from emissions inventories and meteorological observations, and ran the model forward to simulate the concentrations of various PAH chemicals around the world over time.

    Risky reactions

    In their simulations, the researchers started with 16 relatively well-studied PAH chemicals, including benzo(a)pyrene, and traced the concentrations of these chemicals, plus the concentration of their degradation products over two generations, or chemical transformations. In total, the team evaluated 48 PAH species.

    They then compared these concentrations with actual concentrations of the same chemicals, recorded by monitoring stations around the world. This comparison was close enough to show that the model’s concentration predictions were realistic.

    Then within each model’s grid box, the researchers related the concentration of each PAH chemical to its associated cancer risk; to do this, they had to develop a new method based on previous studies in the literature to avoid double-counting risk from the different chemicals. Finally, they overlaid population density maps to predict the number of cancer cases globally, based on the concentration and toxicity of a specific PAH chemical in each location.

    Dividing the cancer cases by population produced the cancer risk associated with that chemical. In this way, the team calculated the cancer risk for each of the 48 compounds, then determined each chemical’s individual contribution to the total risk.

    This analysis revealed that benzo(a)pyrene had a surprisingly small contribution, of about 11 percent, to the overall risk of developing cancer from PAH exposure globally. Eighty-nine percent of cancer risk came from other chemicals. And 17 percent of this risk arose from degradation products.

    “We see places where you can find concentrations of benzo(a)pyrene are lower, but the risk is higher because of these degradation products,” Selin says. “These products can be orders of magnitude more toxic, so the fact that they’re at tiny concentrations doesn’t mean you can write them off.”

    When the researchers compared calculated PAH-associated cancer risks around the world, they found significant differences depending on whether that risk calculation was based solely on concentrations of benzo(a)pyrene or on a region’s broader mix of PAH compounds.

    “If you use the old method, you would find the lifetime cancer risk is 3.5 times higher in Hong Kong versus southern India, but taking into account the differences in PAH mixtures, you get a difference of 12 times,” Kelly says. “So, there’s a big difference in the relative cancer risk between the two places. And we think it’s important to expand the group of compounds that regulators are thinking about, beyond just a single chemical.”

    The team’s study “provides an excellent contribution to better understanding these ubiquitous pollutants,” says Elisabeth Galarneau, an air quality expert and PhD research scientist in Canada’s Department of the Environment. “It will be interesting to see how these results compare to work being done elsewhere … to pin down which (compounds) need to be tracked and considered for the protection of human and environmental health.”

    This research was conducted in MIT’s Superfund Research Center and is supported in part by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Superfund Basic Research Program, and the National Institutes of Health. More

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    Smarter regulation of global shipping emissions could improve air quality and health outcomes

    Emissions from shipping activities around the world account for nearly 3 percent of total human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, and could increase by up to 50 percent by 2050, making them an important and often overlooked target for global climate mitigation. At the same time, shipping-related emissions of additional pollutants, particularly nitrogen and sulfur oxides, pose a significant threat to global health, as they degrade air quality enough to cause premature deaths.

    The main source of shipping emissions is the combustion of heavy fuel oil in large diesel engines, which disperses pollutants into the air over coastal areas. The nitrogen and sulfur oxides emitted from these engines contribute to the formation of PM2.5, airborne particulates with diameters of up to 2.5 micrometers that are linked to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Previous studies have estimated that PM2.5  from shipping emissions contribute to about 60,000 cardiopulmonary and lung cancer deaths each year, and that IMO 2020, an international policy that caps engine fuel sulfur content at 0.5 percent, could reduce PM2.5 concentrations enough to lower annual premature mortality by 34 percent.

    Global shipping emissions arise from both domestic (between ports in the same country) and international (between ports of different countries) shipping activities, and are governed by national and international policies, respectively. Consequently, effective mitigation of the air quality and health impacts of global shipping emissions will require that policymakers quantify the relative contributions of domestic and international shipping activities to these adverse impacts in an integrated global analysis.

    A new study in the journal Environmental Research Letters provides that kind of analysis for the first time. To that end, the study’s co-authors — researchers from MIT and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology — implement a three-step process. First, they create global shipping emission inventories for domestic and international vessels based on ship activity records of the year 2015 from the Automatic Identification System (AIS). Second, they apply an atmospheric chemistry and transport model to this data to calculate PM2.5 concentrations generated by that year’s domestic and international shipping activities. Finally, they apply a model that estimates mortalities attributable to these pollutant concentrations.

    The researchers find that approximately 94,000 premature deaths were associated with PM2.5 exposure due to maritime shipping in 2015 — 83 percent international and 17 percent domestic. While international shipping accounted for the vast majority of the global health impact, some regions experienced significant health burdens from domestic shipping operations. This is especially true in East Asia: In China, 44 percent of shipping-related premature deaths were attributable to domestic shipping activities.

    “By comparing the health impacts from international and domestic shipping at the global level, our study could help inform decision-makers’ efforts to coordinate shipping emissions policies across multiple scales, and thereby reduce the air quality and health impacts of these emissions more effectively,” says Yiqi Zhang, a researcher at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology who led the study as a visiting student supported by the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change.

    In addition to estimating the air-quality and health impacts of domestic and international shipping, the researchers evaluate potential health outcomes under different shipping emissions-control policies that are either currently in effect or likely to be implemented in different regions in the near future.

    They estimate about 30,000 avoided deaths per year under a scenario consistent with IMO 2020, an international regulation limiting the sulfur content in shipping fuel oil to 0.5 percent — a finding that tracks with previous studies. Further strengthening regulations on sulfur content would yield only slight improvement; limiting sulfur content to 0.1 percent reduces annual shipping-attributable PM2.5-related premature deaths by an additional 5,000. In contrast, regulating nitrogen oxides instead, involving a Tier III NOx Standard would produce far greater benefits than a 0.1-percent sulfur cap, with 33,000 further avoided deaths.

    “Areas with high proportions of mortalities contributed by domestic shipping could effectively use domestic regulations to implement controls,” says study co-author Noelle Selin, a professor at MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems and Society and Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, and a faculty affiliate of the MIT Joint Program. “For other regions where much damage comes from international vessels, further international cooperation is required to mitigate impacts.” More