Air pollution is a killer. It has been linked to coronary disease, stroke, eye disease, developmental problems during pregnancy, and other life-threatening health effects.
The number of deaths caused by air pollution is so high that air pollution has been determined to be the fifth leading risk factor for mortality worldwide, according to the State of Global Air Report 2019. “It is responsible for more deaths than malnutrition, alcoholism, and physical inactivity. Each year more people die from air pollution-related diseases than from road traffic injuries or malaria.”
Yet despite the growing mountain of evidence that air pollution is dangerous and getting worse, the United States government and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are failing to try to make it better.
New research published in the peer-reviewed journal JAMA found that 99% of deaths from illnesses linked to a certain type of air pollution come from exposure lower than what the EPA currently allows, reports The Guardian.
Nearly 200,000 Americans die from air pollution. But until now scientists were unable to pinpoint specific causes of death for almost half of those people. Analyzing 4.5 million veterans, scientists running the study focused on PM 2.5, inhalable particulate matter pollution that is 2.5 micrometers or smaller, and were able to link nine causes of death with the pollution: cardiovascular disease, cerebrovascular disease, chronic kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, dementia, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, lung cancer and pneumonia.
Combining EPA air quality data with 10 years of medical records for the nearly 5 million U.S. veterans, researchers found that 36.4 percent of the veterans died of various causes, including many linked to air pollution. Researchers then used these results and applied it to models programmed to estimate the total number of deaths that may be caused by exposure to PM2.5.
Results showed that every year there may be 55,000 deaths from cardiovascular disease caused by poor air quality, 40,000 from cerebrovascular disease, 19,000 deaths from dementia and 17,500 deaths from lung cancer, all linked to PM2.5 exposure. Altogether researchers estimated there may be almost 200,000 deaths attributed to air pollution levels that are deemed “safe” by current EPA standards.
“When a study shows 99% of death occurring at exposure levels below that threshold, that should make us look much harder at whether the threshold protects people effectively enough,” said Miles Keogh, executive director of a group that represents state and local air regulators.
Other results of the study confirm that air pollution disproportionately affects black Americans more than white Americans. “Black Americans were more likely to be exposed to higher levels of PM 2.5. But they also got sicker than white people even when they were breathing the same air.”
“I went into it thinking pollution is color blind … it turns out to be it’s not true,” said co-author Dr. Ziyah Al-Aly. “Actually, pollution itself does discriminate. For the same level of pollution, black people tend to be affected more. And on top of that, black people get exposed to more pollution than white people. It’s kind of like a double-whammy. It’s really unfair.”