Air pollution is deadly: A new study links exposure to it to more than 107,000 premature deaths in the United States in 2011.
It isn’t just killing us; it cost the country $866 billion, more than double the value of all the economic activity in a country like Ireland, according to the study, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Particulate matter, or particle pollution, is the mix of solid and liquid droplets floating in the air, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. It can come in the form of dirt, dust, soot or smoke. Particulate pollution comes from coal- and natural gas-fired plants. Cars, agriculture, unpaved roads, construction sites and wildfires can also create it.
This study focused on the harm caused by the tiniest particulate matter, PM2.5. It’s so tiny –1/20th of a width of a human hair – that you cannot see it, and it can travel past your body’s usual defenses.
Instead of being breathed out, it can get stuck in your lungs or go into your bloodstream. The particles cause irritation and inflammation and can lead to respiratory problems. Long-term exposure can cause cancer, stroke and heart attack.
The most harmful emissions account for the largest share of the total damage, with the top 10% of sources of PM2.5 pollution accounting for 54% of damage, the study found. The highest damage happens in high-population areas such as Los Angeles.
Using a model called the Intervention Model for Air Pollution, InMAP, researchers calculated location-specific estimates of the damage from emissions. About a third of the deaths reported in the study were among people who lived within 5 miles of the pollution source, but they weren’t the only ones affected. About a quarter of the deaths were among people who lived more than 150 miles from the pollution sources.
“Overall, the number of deaths we are seeing with this, that’s more than traffic accidents and homicides combined,” said study co-author Julian Marshall, a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Washington. “Seeing this should be a strong motivator to make improvements.”
Of these deaths, 57% were associated with pollution caused by energy consumption, the study found. About 28% was related to transportation, 14% to electricity generation from coal-fired and gas plants and 15% to pollution caused by farm activities like the application and storage of manure and other fertilizers.
Because no one sector is to blame, the authors argue that multiple industries need sizable reductions in pollution.
Marshall said the good news is that policy solutions work. The air is cleaner than it has been in past decades. The Clean Air Act made a huge difference, but there’s always room for improvement. “If you look at the cost and benefit of addressing air pollution, the costs are far outweighed by the benefit of having cleaner air,” Marshall said.
Dr. Brian Christman, a spokesman for the American Lung Association, said the high number of deaths in the study should be a concern for everyone.
“If two planes were going down every day – that’s about the same number of deaths in this study – this would be on the front page of every newspaper,” said Christman, who was not involved in the research. “This should be seen as a call to action.”
Research has shown that air pollution is a serious health problem. A study published Wednesday showed that air pollution will shorten children’s life expectancy by 20 months, on average. Prolonged exposure also hurts our ability to think clearly, reducing scores on verbal and math tests, studies have shown. It may increase risk of dementia.
No amount of air pollution is safe, Christman said. Pollution in the United States, though, probably won’t be reduced any time soon.
In August, the Trump administration announced plans to let states set their own coal-fired plant emission standards. By the EPA’s own risk analysis, the additional pollution will result in up to 1,400 more premature deaths a year by 2030. By the same year, the Obama administration’s Clean Air Plan, which the new rule will replace, would have avoided 3,600 premature deaths, according to the analysis.
Christman noted that the authors of the new study mention the need to balance health issues with regulatory burdens, but he said that when politicians say this, it always feels like a “false equivalency.”
“This is America. We can always find new ways to generate energy or create technology that doesn’t hurt our people,” Christman said.
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The country would benefit significantly from any reduction in pollution, Marshall said. “There are such significant health benefits when you reduce this kind of pollution. People live longer healthier lives; there would be fewer heart attacks and strokes and lung cancer. Hopefully we will continue to improve on this issue.”