Between 2008 and 2013, global air pollution levels increased by 8 percent[1].  According to the World Bank and the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), 87 percent of the world’s population now live in countries in which ambient pollution levels exceed air quality guidelines set by the World Health Organization – a figure that rises to 90 percent in low- and middle-income countries[2].

Of cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants in low and middle-income countries, 98 percent fail to meet World Health Organization (WHO) air quality guidelines[3].  As air pollution increases, so too does the risk of a range of health concerns – including stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and chronic respiratory diseases.

With 5.5 million lives being lost to air pollution in 2013, it is now the fourth leading risk factor for premature deaths worldwide[4].  That year alone, it cost the global economy US$ 225 billion[5].  Laura Truck, Vice President for Sustainable Development at the World Bank, said:

“Air pollution is a challenge that threatens basic human welfare, damages natural and physical capital, and constrains economic growth.”

Agriculture is a significant factor in the growth of air pollution.  The introduction to the air of large quantities of ammonia, either from fertilized fields or livestock waste, enables it to combine with other pollutants to create particulate matter (otherwise known as PM2.5[6]) – tiny particles that are about 1/30th the width of a human hair[7].  These particles are small enough to enter people’s lungs and are known to cause deadly illnesses such as lung cancer and heart disease[8].

Working towards a cleaner, healthier future

While air pollution is undoubtedly a global problem, the highest concentrations of PM2.5 have been found in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and South and East Asia.  In 1990, there were 3,945 deaths in Saudi Arabia as a result of air pollution, and its measurement stood at 49.7 µg/m3.  By 2013, that measurement was 54 µg/m3, the third highest population-weighted mean concentration of air pollution in the world, and 6,285 people died in Saudi Arabia in 2013 as a direct result of air pollution[9].

There is not just a human cost to air pollution: the economic impact is considerable, too.  Across the MENA, in 2013 labor income losses from air pollution were more than US$ 9 bn[10].  However, a growing population means the need for large-scale agriculture is set to continue to rise – so innovative solutions are required to tackle this urgent and increasingly pressing issue.

Through the Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab (J-WAFS) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Abdul Latif Jameel is attempting to provide answers to some of the planet’s biggest challenges – including pollution.  By funding pioneering research into new technologies, J-WAFS aims to coordinate and promote research that will have a measurable and international impact on humankind.

Twenty-four projects have been supported by J-WAFS since 2015, with US$ 1.4 million being awarded in the latest round of seed grant funding announced in May 2017.

Understanding the impact of air pollution on crop yields

One project supported by J-WAFS attempts to assess and predict the impact of air pollution on future agricultural yields.  The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) estimates that, in 2000, ozone caused approximate global losses for the three main crops grown across the world – soy, wheat, and maize – of 6-16 percent, 7-12 percent, and 3-5 percent respectively.

Colette Heald is Associate Professor and Associate Department Head of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) at MIT.  She has worked extensively with CEE PhD student Luke Schiferi on a project designed to better understand the relationships between ozone precursor emissions, particulate matter, and crop yields.

With growing concern about air pollution levels and increasing global demand for food, air pollution poses a significant threat to global food security.  Together, Heald and Schiferi are using modelling and statistics to better understand the potential effects of particulate matter on future crop yields.  They aim to develop a fuller understanding of the uncertainties humans face, and help to shape policy accordingly over the coming decades.

Their initial results suggest a complex balance between the impacts of ozone and particulate matter on global crop yields: in some regions, particulate matter offsets some – but not all – of the ozone damage, though the impact of particulate matter on global crop yields remains uncertain.  

“In areas more susceptible to ozone pollution, for example, farmers could be encouraged to plant more ozone-resistant crops,” says Schiferi.

He also notes that this research suggests how “it’s important to be aware of the hidden cost” of air pollution policies and regulation that decrease the amount of particulate matter in the atmosphere.  Given the enhancing effects of particulate matter, any policies which lead to a reduction in particulate matter pollution could have negative impacts on crop production,” he says.

Safer water for all

Air pollution is not the only area of concern that J-WAFS researchers are helping to combat: water pollution is also causing problems around the world.  In many countries, agriculture is a key factor in the rise of water pollution, with the use of pesticides, fertilizers and other agrochemicals increasing significantly since the 1950s[11].

Supported by a seed grant from J-WAFS at MIT, a team of the world’s leading researchers have developed a novel new method to remove even extremely low levels of unwanted compounds from water[12].  Pesticides, chemical waste products and pharmaceuticals can all be dangerous – even when found in only relatively low concentrations.  The new approach, outlined in Energy and Environmental Science, uses an electrochemical process to selectively remove these organic contaminants. It does this by using ‘faradaic’ materials – materials that can be positively or negatively charged – by adding charge, researchers can fine-tune the materials to attract and remove pollutant molecules at the smallest concentrations.

Compared to the two most popular existing solutions, this new method addresses the key limitations of conventional separation methods, such as cost, power and chemical treatment requirements.

The research won the 2016 MIT Water Innovation Prize, and the team behind it has already applied for a patent on this new process.  The system was developed by the research of MIT’s Ralph Landau Professor of Chemical Engineering T. Alan Hatton, MIT postdoc in chemical engineering Xiao Su, as well as five others from MIT and the Technical University of Darmstadt in Germany.

MIT postdoctoral researcher Xiao Su, a leading figure in the development of the technology, believes it could make a significant impact on the world’s water supplies.  He said: “Such systems might ultimately be useful for water purification systems for remote areas in the developing world, where pollution from pesticides, dyes, and other chemicals are often an issue in the water supply.  The highly efficient, electrically operated system could run on power from solar panels in rural areas.”

While it still needs to be further tested to validate technical viability under real-world conditions, the prototype system has achieved promising results.  A video and more information on the research can be seen here.

Investing in our future communities

Finding sustainable and effective ways to tackle air and water pollution is a major challenge around the world, but it is clear that some regions are affected more than others: just 6 percent of all deaths linked to air pollution do not occur in low- and middle-income countries[13].

Hassan Jameel, President of Community Jameel in Saudi Arabia, said: “Developing technology like this is key to addressing water and food security, and clearing a common problem facing the world today.  That is why J-WAFS is continuing to explore the power of science and technology to positively impact millions of lives.”

Through its continued investment in J-WAFS, Abdul Latif Jameel is empowering the world’s sharpest minds to work towards solving some of mankind’s biggest problems.  Only by working together and investing in world-leading research can we hope to build a brighter, more sustainable future for all our citizens and communities.

[1] Air pollution levels rising in many of the world’s poorest cities, World Health Organization, 12 May 2016
[2] The Cost of Air Pollution: Strengthening the Economic Case for Action, World Bank and Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), September 2016
[3] WHO Global Urban Ambient Air Pollution Database (update 2016), World Health Organization, accessed June 2017
[4] Air Pollution Deaths Cost Global Economy US$225 Billion, World Bank, 8 September 2016
[5] Air Pollution Deaths Cost Global Economy US$225 Billion, World Bank, 8 September 2016
[6] A Major Source of Air Pollution: Farms, The Earth Institute, Columbia University, 16 May 2016
[7] Air Pollution Deaths Cost Economies in Middle East and North Africa More than $9 Billion, World Bank, 8 September 2016
[8] Air Pollution Deaths Cost Economies in Middle East and North Africa More than $9 Billion, World Bank, 8 September 2016
[9] The Cost of Air Pollution: Strengthening the Economic Case for Action, World Bank and Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), September 2016
[10] Air Pollution Deaths Cost Economies in Middle East and North Africa More than $9 Billion, World Bank, 8 September 2016
[11] Farming: Pollution, WWF, accessed June 2017
[12] MIT researchers develop new way to clear pollutants from water, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 10 May 2017
[13] 7 shocking facts about air pollution, World Economic Forum, 27 October 2016