The vitamin everyone needs to take

Dirty air is bad for everyone. Linked to higher risks of heart attacks and strokes in adults, air pollution from highways, industrial factories and wood smoke has even been found to cause behavioral problems in children born to mothers with high exposure.

Most of the time, the only way to counteract the damage that particulate matter can do to your heart and brain is to move away from it — not always a practical solution. Now, scientists have found that omega-3 fish oils can fight damage caused by dirty air.

In a new study published in Environmental Health Perspectives, researchers from the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institute for Environmental Health Scientists gave 29 healthy middle-aged adults either omega-3 fish oil supplements or a placebo of olive oil supplements. After four weeks of supplementation, the test subjects were placed in enclosed chambers for two hours while being exposed to pollution levels similar to those you might be exposed to in an average urban environment. Their blood was tested before and after the exposure.

After exposure to pollution, the people on fish oil supplements experienced much lower heart rate variability, a marker for cardiovascular damage, and other markers of cardiac distress, than the people taking olive oil supplements. At the same time, although both groups had similar LDL (bad) cholesterol and lipid (blood fat) levels before exposure, those levels spiked in the olive oil group but remained steady in the fish oil group.

The effects of air pollution on heart health have become so pervasive that an entire medical field, called environmental cardiology, has cropped up to treat them. And most environmental cardiologists previously believed that the best way to protect against the damages of air pollution was to ward off heart disease entirely, for instance, eating healthfully, eliminating cigarettes and exercising to reduce both weight and stress levels. This study shows that adding fish oil supplements to that list will help keep you from succumbing to air-pollution-induced heart problems.

The participants in this study took 3 grams of fish oil per day every day for four weeks, which is an average dose for most over-the-counter supplements. However, not all supplements are created equal, particularly with fish oil.

It’s important to choose high-quality products to prevent exposure to contaminants such as mercury and PCBs:

• Consult independent tests . Although most fish oils used in supplements come from species that aren’t high in mercury and PCBs, that doesn’t mean a few poisoned poisson don’t make it into the mix. The Environmental Defense Fund surveyed 75 fish oil manufacturers to see if they purify their fish oils to remove PCBs and mercury, and published a list of the healthier supplements. Alternately, consult the third-party supplement-testing service ConsumerLab.com , which conducts annual tests on fish oils and looks for contaminants that could undermine the health benefits of your fish oil supplements.

• Read labels wisely . Concentration of the different omega-3s in the fish oil can vary, according to tests from ConsumerLab. The most beneficial fatty acids are EPA and DHA. In this study, the effective dose contained 410 milligrams of EPA and 274 milligrams of DHA.

• Don’t confuse price with quality . Just because a brand costs more doesn’t mean you’re getting a better-quality product. In ConsumerLab tests, some of the best-quality supplements with the lowest levels of contaminants cost just 6- to 10 cents per serving.

• Don’t be duped by meaningless claims . “Pharmaceutical-grade,” “contaminant-free” and “tested in FDA-approved laboratories” do not carry weight. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not approve analytical labs, although some labs could be FDA registered and inspected.

credit:Emily Main

CO2 emissions stall, even as economy grows

For the first time, global CO2 emissions are expected to dip in 2015 despite economic growth.

Earth’s industrial carbon dioxide emissions are on pace to plateau this year, according to new projections, and they might even decline. On top of 2014’s relatively small increase in CO2 output, this surprising shift is raising hopes that an explosive era of greenhouse gas emissions may finally be winding down.

For most of the past 15 years, CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels increased by an average of 2.4 percent annually. But researchers from the University of East Anglia and the Global Carbon Project report that CO2 output grew by just 0.6 percent in 2014. And, more importantly, they say it may actually decline 0.6 percent in 2015.
Until now, global CO2 emissions have only fallen during economic downturns, like the collapse of the Soviet Union or the 2008 financial crisis. But if these new forecasts hold true, 2015 would mark the first modern dip in CO2 emissions while the global economy is growing. It may not represent a true “carbon peak” — even the study’s authors say emissions will likely rise again — but it does offer timely evidence that economic prosperity and ecological responsibility aren’t mutually exclusive.

World leaders and diplomats are currently in Paris for major U.N. climate talks, which are meant to produce a new worldwide treaty for reining in CO2 emissions. The summit was already expected to succeed where many others have failed, but this kind of reminder about the economics of CO2 cuts can only help matters.

“We have broken the old arguments for inaction,” U.S. President Barack Obama said in a speech on the summit’s opening day on Nov. 30. “We have proved that strong economic growth and a safer environment no longer have to conflict with one another; they can work in concert with one another.”

Published in the journal Nature Climate Change, the new findings are attributed largely to China, whose ranking as the No. 1 net emitter of CO2 puts it in a unique position to influence global emissions trends. “China is trying to deal massively with its air pollution problem,” study co-author Corinne Le Quéré, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia, tells Nature News. “And its renewables are growing very fast.”

There are still uncertainties about China’s self-reported CO2 data, highlighted last month by news that China has been burning up to 17 percent more coal per year than its government had previously stated. Le Quéré says her research team factored China’s revised data into their new analysis, but she acknowledges that more transparency is needed in reporting of national CO2 emissions.

“We don’t have the capacity to check the energy reports of the countries,” she says. “We have to rely on the countries to tell us what types of coal they use and how clean it is. If the reporting was systematic, it would be wonderful.”

That kind of transparency is one goal of the Paris talks — formally known as COP21, short for “Conference of Parties” — where diplomats are working on ways to track and verify each country’s emissions. But in the meantime, based on China’s own data plus ongoing economic trends, the new study projects Chinese CO2 emissions alone will decrease by nearly 4 percent in 2015. After long resisting the idea of CO2 limits, China recently pledged that its emissions will peak by 2030.

Some have suggested the 2015 data may mean global CO2 emissions have already peaked, thus kicking off a new, downward trend in the main gas responsible for man-made climate change. But many experts doubt that, pointing out not only that Chinese emissions could rise again, but also that emissions from India and other developing countries will likely offset China’s progress at some point.

“Emissions in India are at the same level as China in the 1990s,” climate analyst Glen P. Peters tells the New York Times, adding that India “could actually dominate the global growth in the way that China has done in the past.”

The new study also doesn’t fully account for some man-made sources of CO2, namely those from deforestation — an especially big problem this year due to huge peat fires linked to land clearing in Indonesia. But in the long-running, often-gridlocked effort to curb climate change, any sign that humans are cutting back industrial CO2 emissions without sacrificing economic growth is reason for optimism, the researchers argue.

“Time will tell whether this surprising interruption in emissions growth is transitory or a first step toward emissions stabilization,” they write. “In either case, the trend is a welcome change from the historical coupling of CO2 emissions with economic growth and should be strengthened through efforts at the Paris COP and beyond.”

Credit: Russell Mclendon