US Air Pollution Still Kills Thousands Every Year – Study Concludes

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US Air Pollution Still Kills Thousands Every Year -  Study Concludes
Photo – Foto-Rabe –

Recently, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has caused controversy over its aims to roll back Obama-era policies that aimed to limit environmental pollution. The president’s critics believe that his policies – including increasing the use of coal, relaxing air pollution standards, and cutting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – would make the air Americans breathe poorer quality air. [1] Is it worth sacrificing the public health for the sake of money?

The general direction of Trump’s environmental policies is clearly not to clean up the air. However, we are not just talking about a few sore throats here. It actually poses a surprising threat to the lives of Americans who continue to face the problem of long-term exposure to airborne fine particulate matter and ozone, according to a new study carried out by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The study revealed that 97% of 60 million Americans age 65 and older are facing an increased risk of premature death, even when the exposure is lower than the EPA’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQ). [2]

The government wants to loosen air pollution controls, but the study shows that even existing rules are contributors to the tens of thousands of deaths annually. The study investigated twelve years of data from 61 million beneficiaries of Medicare. They also considered a databank of pollution readings to determine the association between specific air quality levels and death rates.

The major findings of the study are summarized below:

• Death rate increased 7.3 percent for every increase of just 10 micrograms in small-particle pollution known as PM2.5.

• The increase above equates with 120,000 fatalities among people age 65 and older.

• A 10 part-per-billion rise in ozone concentration is equivalent to a 1.1 percent in mortality rate.

• Lowering the level of PM2.5 by one microgram per cubic meter translates to about 12,000 lives saved every year.

• Lowering the level of ozone by just one part per billion could save about 1,900 lives each year.

According to Francesca Dominici, lead author of the study, their research highlights the link between reducing the NAAQ limits for fine particulate matter and producing important public health benefits. She posits the relevance of their findings to self-identified racial minorities and people with low-incomes. These demographics are three times as likely to die from exposure to fine particulate matters, the study found.

California suffers the most health impacts attributed to air pollution, according to a study conducted by researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Emissions from road transportation were the most significant contributor. Other risk factors include power generation, industrial activity, commercial and residential sources, and rail transportation. [3]

Air pollution is one of the leading global risk factors for disease, according to a study presented at the 2016 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Despite tougher efforts to slow emissions, air pollution will continue to rise in the coming decades, based on the number of deaths tied to air pollution. [4]

The U.S. is not only the country that experienced increases in pollution deaths in recent decades – and is nowhere near the worst. China and India account for more than half of the deaths related to air pollution. Brazil, Japan, and Pakistan also bear the brunt of air pollution to their population. However it’s a sad truth that global consumerism drives these countries’ industrial expansion, and they too have placed profit as a higher consideration than public health.

One study estimated that outdoor air pollution would cause the deaths of three million people by 2050. [5] Another study attributed the premature deaths of 1.6 million people in China to air pollution. [6]

The vast majority of air pollution deaths are due to cardiovascular diseases, according to a 2014 report from the World Health Organization. These diseases include stroke and ischaemic heart disease. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, and acute lower respiratory infections are the air pollution-caused deaths. [7]

The Harvard study suggests that the present EPA standards may not be stringent enough to reduce air pollution. It stresses the need for the U.S. to double its commitment to clean air. It criticizes the Trump government for moving headlong in the opposite direction which includes funding cuts to EPA and undoing rules regulating power plant emissions. It calls for lowering pollution levels even further.


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[1] Michael Greshko, Laura Parker, and Brian Clark Howard. June 14, 2017. National Geographic. A Running List of How Trump Is Changing the Environment.

[2] Qian D. et al. June 29, 2017. The New England Journal of Medicine. Air Pollution and Mortality in the Medicare Population.

[3] Caiazzo F et al. November 2013. Atmospheric Environment. Air pollution and early deaths in the United States. Part I: Quantifying the impact of major sectors in 2005.

[4] Justin Worland. February 12, 2016. Air Pollution Kills More Than 5 Million People Around the World Every Year.

[5] J. Lelieveld J. et al. September 17, 2015. Nature. The contribution of outdoor air pollution sources to premature mortality on a global scale.

[6] Robert A. Rohde and Richard A. Muller. Berkley Earth. Air Pollution in China: Mapping of Concentrations and Sources.

[7] World Health Organization. March 25, 2014. 7 million premature deaths annually linked to air pollution.

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