Polluted air continues to drive premature deaths in the United States with no level of exposure leaving humans unaffected, according to new research published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine July 29. “We are now providing bullet-proof evidence that we are breathing harmful air,” says Francesca Dominici, a professor of biostatistics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who led the study, told NPR. “Our air is contaminated.” The study found a strong correlation between mortality and exposure to ozone and particulate matter, both of which contribute to smog. And it goes without saying – the higher the concentration of pollutants in the air, the greater number of deaths that can be expected.
Even though pollution levels in the United States have declined dramatically because of regulations, including the Clean Air Act, many cities and particularly, smaller communities and rural areas struggle to meet standards for clean air. But here is what’s so startling – The study found that the EPA’s standards may not be strict enough because pollution levels below the minimum standards are still causing premature deaths. The researchers used data collected from EPA air quality monitoring stations, as well as satellites to develop a detailed picture of air quality and pollution for every zip code in the United States. The scientists then analyzed low-level air pollution’s impact on the mortality rates of 60 million Medicare recipients from 2000 to 2012. About 12,000 lives could be saved each year, the study concludes, by cutting the level of fine particulate matter nationwide by just 1 microgram per cubic meter of air below current standards. It’s important to note that while the ages of Americans reflected in the study were those people over the age of 65, another significant factor came to light – the socio-economic background of the group. Fine particulate matter — basically, tiny particles of dust and soot — appears to be especially dangerous for African-Americans, men and poor people, the researchers found. Dominici has some theories as to why this significant finding showed up.
“People of color tend to be sicker and more affected [by] disease,” she says, pointing out that they also tend to live in places with more pollution and have less access to health care. “I think it is the responsibility of the government to make sure that our air is clean,” she says. Why this study is important today The Trump White House has promised to focus on “clean air and water,” all the while attempting to undo or defund many of the programs that protect our water and air. Under Trump’s direction, the EPA has already begun to roll back emission standards regulating power plants, reports Time. Trump’s proposed 2018 budget request also cuts funding for just about every program in the EPA. “Despite compelling data, the Trump administration is moving headlong in the opposite direction,” scientists wrote in a New England Journal of Medicine editorial accompanying the study. “We must redouble our commitment to clean air. If such protections lapse, Americans will suffer.”