U.S. Air Pollution Still Kills Thousands Every Year, Study Concludes

Jun 28, 2017
Originally published on June 28, 2017 8:28 pm

The air Americans breathe has been getting cleaner for decades.

But air pollution is still killing thousands in the U.S. every year, even at the levels allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency, according to a study out Wednesday.

"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. "Our air is contaminated."

Dominici and her colleagues set out to do the most comprehensive study to date assessing the toll that air pollution takes on American lives.

The researchers used data from federal air monitoring stations as well as satellites to compile a detailed picture of air pollution down to individual zip codes. They then analyzed the impact of very low levels of air pollution on mortality, using data from 60 million Medicare patients from 2000 to 2012.

About 12,000 lives could be saved each year, their analysis concludes, by cutting the level of fine particulate matter nationwide by just 1 microgram per cubic meter of air below current standards.

"It's very strong, compelling evidence that currently, the safety standards are not safe enough," Dominici says.

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.

Compared to the general population, African-Americans are about three times as likely to die from exposure to it, the researchers found.

The study did not examine why that would be the case, but Dominici has some theories.

"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.

Taken together, she says, the results indicate that more should be done to push air pollution levels as low as possible. "I think it is the responsibility of the government to make sure that our air is clean," she says.

The EPA did not respond to NPR's request for comment.

Scott Segal, a Washington lawyer who works for the energy industry and has advised the Trump administration, argues the study is flawed. And he says that cutting air pollution even further would come with big costs.

"When we have very expensive environmental rules, they in and of themselves can adversely affect public health" by increasing the cost of medical care, suppressing economic growth, and siphoning off resources from more serious health threats, Segal says.

But Jeffrey Drazen, editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, defended the research in an editorial accompanying the study.

"What these data are telling us is that even with our current standards, if we cleaned up the air more, we could save lives," Drazen says. "Anything that we did that pushed things in the opposite direction — that gave us dirtier air — not only would be unpleasant, it's going to kill a lot of people."

And Drazen says the Trump administration's policies would make the air dirtier. He cited the administration's efforts to cut the EPA, increase the use of coal, relax air pollution standards and withdraw from the fight against global warming.

"If you look at what's happening in the Trump administration, the general direction is not to clean up the air," Drazen says. "So this is a warning that if we don't clean up the air, the people who are going to bear that burden are the poor and the disadvantaged, more than the rich and well-off."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Air pollution kills thousands of Americans every year even at the levels currently allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency. That is the conclusion of a huge new Harvard study published today by The New England Journal of Medicine. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein reports.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Our air has been getting cleaner for decades. But Francesca Dominici of the Harvard Chan School of Public Health wanted to know if it should be even cleaner.

FRANCESCA DOMINICI: We wanted to do the largest possible study for estimating health effects of air pollution on mortality.

STEIN: So Dominici and her colleagues analyzed death rates collected from about 60 million Medicare patients every year for more than a decade and very precise satellite data that let them measure the impact of very low levels of air pollution down to individual ZIP codes.

DOMINICI: We are now providing bulletproof evidence that we are breathing harmful air. Our air is contaminated.

STEIN: By very tiny particles of soot from smokestacks, tailpipes and other sources. According to Dominici's analysis, cutting that so-called fine particulate matter by just one point below the EPA's current standards would save 12,000 lives each year.

DOMINICI: It's very strong, compelling evidence that currently the safety standards are not safe enough.

STEIN: And air pollution appears to be especially dangerous for African-Americans and poor people. Blacks, for example, have three times the risk as the general population. No one knows why, but Dominici has some theories.

DOMINICI: People of color tend to be sicker and be more affected to disease and also to potentially living in area with a higher pollution level.

STEIN: Taken together, the results indicate that more should be done to push air pollution levels as low as possible.

DOMINICI: The take-home message of this study is that we should really do whatever we can to make sure that we allow everyone, regardless (laughter) of where they live and their social economic status - I think it's the responsibility of the government in making sure that our air is clean.

STEIN: Jeffrey Drazen is the top editor at The New England Journal of Medicine. He thinks the research is so important that he personally helped write an editorial accompanying the study.

JEFFEREY DRAZEN: What these data are telling us is that even with our current standards, if we cleaned up the air more, we could save lives. So anything that we did that pushed things in the opposite direction that gave us dirtier air not only would be unpleasant. It's going to kill a lot of people.

STEIN: And Drazen says the Trump administration's policies would make the air dirtier by cutting the EPA, pushing coal and abandoning the fight against global warming.

DRAZEN: If you look at what's happening in the Trump administration, the general direction is not to clean up the air. So this is a warning that if we don't clean up the air, the people who are going to bear that burden are the poor and the disadvantaged more than the rich and well-off.

STEIN: But not everyone agrees. Scott Segal is a Washington lawyer who worked for the energy industry and has advised the Trump administration. He says the new study is flawed, and he argues cutting air pollution even further would come with big costs.

SCOTT SEGAL: When we have very expensive environmental rules, they in and of themselves can adversely affect public health by increasing the cost of medical care, by suppressing economic growth. And you've - I'm sure you've heard the expression that, you know, wealthier is healthier - and discouraging the amount of resources we have available for more serious health threats.

STEIN: The EPA did not respond to NPR's request for comment. Rob Stein, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF STRFKR SONG, "OPEN YOUR EYES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.