Friday, June 14, 2019

Ammonia in the Air

Ammonia, one of the most potent air pollutants is on the rise in the UK, but the government has no comprehensive monitoring, little enforcement, and almost no funding or clear plan to reduce the emissions.

The pungent, irritant gas that comes from livestock farms and combines with other chemicals in the air to form deadly particulates – has been largely ignored by the government, despite pledges from ministers to slash air pollution. In high concentrations, such as found near liquid manure stores, ammonia can cause a stinging sensation in the eyes and throat and an overpowering acrid smell; if inhaled for too long, it can cause eye damage or even death. In lower concentrations, it causes irritation.

Andrea Pozzer, head of a research group at the renowned Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Germany, has studied the impact of ammonia, finding that 50,000 deaths from air pollution could be avoided annually in Europe if agricultural emissions were halved. In the UK, this equates to at least 3,000 deaths a year.
The findings include:
  • 1. Government inaction and regulatory failings mean the most polluting farming sectors – dairy and beef cattle – are under no obligation to monitor, report or reduce ammonia emissions.
  • 2. Despite promising to close this loophole by 2025, Michael Gove, the environment secretary, has not laid out a clear plan or any legislation to do so. In the meantime, the number of intensive US-style beef feedlots and dairy “megafarms” has been increasing.
  • 3. Leaked documents show that cuts in staffing at the Environment Agency, which polices farm pollution, mean a lack of resources to carry out even basic monitoring.
  • 4. Demand for cheap food adds to the problem, as many farmers operate on thin margins. Brexit is likely to exacerbate this, as current EU subsidies will disappear, and farmers may face crippling export tariffs under a no-deal scenario. In addition, the UK may be flooded with cheap imports from countries with lower welfare standards as part of new trade deals.

The vast majority of ammonia emissions in the UK come from livestock manure. When it mixes with other forms of pollution from vehicles or industry, it forms airborne particles called PM2.5, which are linked to respiratory problems, cardiovascular diseases, cognitive decline and low birth weights. 

 “PM2.5 is probably responsible for somewhere between half and three-quarters of the total harm we derive as humans from air pollution,” said Alastair Lewis, director for composition research at the National Centre for Atmospheric Science. About half of PM2.5 in urban areas comes from ammonia.

Ammonia is playing a lead role in fine particle formation and the reduction of it could really improve air quality,” said Pozzer.
Currently, the government only collects data from a small number of intensive facilities that house more than 40,000 birds, 2,000 pigs or 750 sows. Cattle farms account for about 44% of the UK’s total ammonia emissions, but require no environmental permits and are unmonitored for ammonia, while many more livestock units keep animal numbers just below the threshold for regulation. Also cuts at the Environment Agency mean there are not enough staff to enforce regulations. Without monitoring, farmers can – knowingly or unknowingly – breach what regulations there are, for instance by gaining planning permission for one type of building then converting it to livestock sheds without the appropriate planning permission, or the right kind of slurry storage.

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