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Air Pollution Contributes to More Than 20,000 Deaths a Year

Carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere if half of global-warming emissions are not absorbed. Credit: NASA/JPL/GSFC

Day-to-day increases in air pollution, even at levels generally considered acceptable, are associated with increased deaths among the elderly.

Poor air quality adversely affects human health, the environment, and the climate. Both short-term and long-term exposure to air pollution harms health
This harm occurs either via direct exposure to air pollutants, or indirectly via pollutants transported through the air, deposited, and then accumulated in the food chain.

Air pollution also harms ecosystems by contributing to eutrophication and acidification of water and soil, leading to loss of flora and fauna. 

Air pollution can also harm agricultural crops and forests causing yield losses. Furthermore, certain air pollutants affect the climate system by triggering positive or negative changes in global radiative forcing (see SOER 2015 briefing on the air and climate system).
Previous studies have suggested an association, but most have been based on small populations in metropolitan areas. This new study, in JAMA, used Medicare files and nationwide air pollution data to estimate 24-hour exposure in people who died between 2000 and 2012.

The researchers found that for each day-to-day increase of 10 micrograms per square meter in fine pariculate matter (PM 2.5), the small particles of soot that easily enter the lungs and bloodstream, there was a 1.05 percent increase in deaths. For each 10 parts per billion increase in ozone, a main component of smog, there was a 0.51 percent increase.

The effect was greater for low-income people, African-Americans, women and those over 70, and the risk remained significant even at levels below what the Environmental Protection Agency considers safe.

“This translates to PM 2.5 causing an extra 20,000 deaths a year,” said a co-author, Joel D. Schwartz, a professor of epidemiology at Harvard. “Separately, a 10 parts per billion decrease in ozone would save 10,000 lives per year.”

This amounts to more deaths per year than caused by AIDS, Dr. Schwartz said. “But unlike AIDS, we know the cure: scrubbers on coal-burning power plants that don’t have them, and reduction in nitrogen oxide emissions because they drive the production of ozone.”

Low-Level Air Pollution Associated With Death

Globally, an estimated 3.3 million annual premature deaths (5.86% of global mortality) are attributable to outdoor air pollution,1 although ambient air pollution has been regulated under national laws in many countries. In the United States under the Clean Air Act, the primary National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) are intended to protect human health, with an adequate margin of safety, including sensitive populations such as children, older adults, and individuals with respiratory diseases. Under the Clean Air Act, the standards are reviewed every 5 years to account for new scientific evidence regarding their appropriateness and adequacy for protecting public health.

Air pollution affects birth weight, study finds

Source: The Jama Network, The New York Times, European Environment Agency

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