Cutting air pollutants could save more than 50,000 US lives each year, study says

The polluting activities rely mostly on the burning of fossil fuels and so are significant producers of the carbon dioxide emissions driving climate change.


About 53,200 premature deaths could be avoided in the U.S. each year if the fine particulate air pollution emissions produced by transportation, industrial activities, the generation of electricity, cooking and heating were eliminated, according to a new study, a press release from the University of Wisconsin-Madison said. Avoided deaths and healthcare costs from illnesses would also result in about $608 billion in benefits per year.

The polluting activities rely mostly on the burning of fossil fuels and so are significant producers of the carbon dioxide emissions driving climate change.

“Our work provides a sense of the scale of the air quality health benefits that could accompany deep decarbonization of the U.S. energy system,” said the study’s lead author Nick Mailloux, who is a graduate student at the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment in University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, as reported by The Hill. “Shifting to clean energy sources can provide enormous benefit for public health in the near term while mitigating climate change in the longer term.”

The study by researchers at University of Wisconsin-Madison, “Nationwide and Regional PM2.5-Related Air Quality Health Benefits From the Removal of Energy-Related Emissions in the United States,” was published in the journal GeoHealth.

Using a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency model, Mailloux worked with public health and air quality specialists to determine what the health benefits would be from completely reducing fine particulate matter emissions, as well as emissions from nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide, which have the ability to create particulate matter after being released into Earth’s atmosphere, the press release said. The toxins are contributors to health issues like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, heart disease, stroke and serious lower respiratory infections.

The study’s researchers looked into how the actions of specific regions to lower emissions would affect the health of the area’s population. They found the potential for a wide array of results in different parts of the country, due in part to geographical differences in population and energy usage.

“Between 32 percent and 95 percent of the health benefits from eliminating emissions in a region will remain in that region,” the study said. “On average, slightly more than two-thirds (69%) of the health benefits from emissions removal in a region — represented by our central estimate of avoided mortality — remain in the emitting region.”

For example, the researchers found that the states that make up the Southwest — California, Nevada and Arizona — would be able to reap 95 percent of the gains from the elimination of emissions from fine particles alone, but such local benefits weren’t seen in all regions of the country.

“In the Mountain region, though, most of the benefit of emissions removal is felt somewhere else,” said Mailloux, as University of Wisconsin-Madison stated in the press release. “Just 32 percent of the benefit remains in states in the Mountain region. This is partly because there are large population centers downwind of the Mountain region that would also benefit.”

However, the study showed that, in every part of the country, national action was more effective than regional measures to lower emissions.

“The Great Plains, for example, gets more than twice as much benefit from nationwide efforts as it does from acting alone,” Mailloux said, according to the press release. “The more that states and regions can coordinate their emissions reductions efforts, the greater the benefit they can provide to us all.”

In identifying short-term benefits of pollution reduction against the backdrop of potentially disastrous future effects of climate change, the aim of the researchers was to inspire greater initiative to curb these outcomes.

“Our analysis is timely, following last month’s report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that called for urgent action to transform the world’s energy economy,” said Jonathan Patz, senior author of the study and a University of Wisconsin–Madison professor in the Nelson Institute and Department of Population Health Sciences, as stated in the press release. “My hope is that our research findings might spur decision-makers grappling with the necessary move away from fossil fuels, to shift their thinking from burdens to benefits.”

Patz added that “people look at this as such a huge challenge, but when you look at the health repercussions of switching to clean energy, the benefits are enormous,” as reported by The Washington Post.


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