March 15, 2021 - Podcast

Episode 103—Carbon emissions, and chemical safety

Last year, stay-at-home orders resulted in a decline in carbon emissions. But an Indiana University researcher says the pandemic may not have had as much of an effect on air quality in 2020 as we once thought. In fact, as restrictions lifted, carbon emissions went right back up. IUPUI earth sciences professor Gabriel Filippelli and his team found that, during the lockdown, air quality in the city of Indianapolis improved by 25 percent compared to the previous five years. They saw similar decreases in other cities they studied. But when businesses reopened and people started driving again, Filippelli says the trend reversed. As a result, carbon emissions in the U.S. went down by only about 12 percent in 2020 compared to the previous year, he says. Globally, Filippelli says, carbon emissions last year only went down about 6 percent — partly because China had a stricter lockdown and was able to open up manufacturing businesses sooner. And emissions could climb even more as people get vaccinated and more restrictions are lifted. Filippelli says it wouldn’t be surprising if there's no gap at all and that in terms of climate, we’re back to business as usual — which is not a good business to be in. Filippelli says the data shows the U.S. will have to be much more aggressive about reducing carbon emissions to meet climate goals. But he says the data also shows that individuals can have a big impact on the air quality where they live, especially when it comes to transportation.

In other news, a project involving Indiana University researchers received funding from the European Commission to shape chemical safety regulation without the use of animal testing. IU is part of a consortium of European and U.S. organizations called PrecisionTox, short for precision toxicology, that is working to protect human health from the toxic effects of chemicals found in people's homes, food and the environment. IU environmental researcher Joseph Shaw says the work is important because we live in a world that relies on chemicals. We cannot just get rid of them, but with sufficient understanding of their effects, we can learn to make better decisions about how we interact with them, he says. The PrecisionTox research will be carried out without mammalian animal testing, focusing instead on nonsentient organisms such as fruit flies, roundworms, water fleas, and zebrafish and frog embryos. Shaw says the small size and fast development of the nonsentient organisms allow chemical testing to be done rapidly. And because the organisms’ genomes are decoded along with human genomes, the measurements are expected to reveal genetic and metabolic pathways shared with humans. Once the pathways are understood, Shaw says the effects of chemicals in nonsentient organisms will be measured and used to predict the likely effects in humans. The consortium will investigate the toxicity of hundreds of chemicals and explore how they disrupt the biological processes that are fundamental to health. The work will open up a new field of precision toxicology that will transform approaches to chemical safety management in the same way that precision medicine is informing health care. Researchers also hope to work with governing bodies to improve toxic chemical regulations, not only in Europe but around the globe.