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New Study Shows Americans are Dying Early from Air Pollution

Environment Policy Brief #135 | By: Jacob Morton | February 9, 2022

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How Do the Health Affects of Airborne Particles and Chemicals Affect Us?

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Policy Summary

A new study published by the Health Effects Institute shows that Federal air pollution regulations are not doing enough to protect our elders from serious illness and death. The Health Effects Institute (HEI), is a non-profit corporation established by Congress in 1980 as “an independent research organization to provide high-quality, impartial, and relevant science on the health effects of air pollution.” HEI states that it “typically receives balanced funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the worldwide motor vehicle industry. Other public and private organizations periodically support special projects or certain research programs,” including funding from fossil fuel companies,” as reported by the New York Times. The recent report published by HEI shows that Americans 65 and older are still at risk of death from exposure to fine soot pollution in the air, even at the levels allowed by the Federal government.

Soot is a byproduct of the incomplete burning of carbon-containing materials. The fine black or brown powder that characterizes soot and often referred to as particulate matter or PM 2.5 (because its width is 2.5 microns or less), “may contain a number of carcinogens, including arsenic, cadmium, and chromium.” Typically, the general public can be exposed to soot through engine exhaust, furnaces, fireplaces, and particulate emissions from any combustion source, including industrial smokestack emissions.

The study found that if the Federal limits on allowable soot pollution had been just slightly lower, “as many as 143,000 deaths could have been prevented over the course of a decade.” In 1990, Harvard University’s “Six Cities” study found that “living in heavily polluted cities can shave two to three years off a person’s life.” The tiny particles in soot can enter the lungs and bloodstream to affect lung function, exacerbate asthma, and trigger heart attacks and other serious illnesses. It has been found that exposure to airborne PM 2.5 potentially contributes to roughly 20,000 deaths each year and has long been linked to respiratory illness and impaired cognitive development in children.

However, this new study published by HEI is the first in the United States to document the negative health impacts of air pollution from soot on people who live in rural areas and towns with little industrial activity. The study, led by Harvard professor of biostatistics, Francesca Dominici, over the course of four years, examined health data from 68.5 million Medicare recipients across the United States. The age requirement to qualify for Medicare is 65 years or older, and as such, this study documents the negative impacts of soot pollution specifically on older Americans.

Currently, the national standard for allowable pollution levels of PM 2.5 is set at a yearly average of 12 micrograms per cubic meter, a level higher than that recommended by the World Health Organization. The Biden administration has, however, considered strengthening those regulations. Dominici and her team of researchers concluded that 143,257 deaths could have been prevented between 2006 and 2016 if the standard had been tightened to 10 micrograms per cubic meter.

Every five years, the EPA is required, by law, to review the latest scientific findings on the health impacts of soot pollution, and to update the national standard for soot and PM 2.5 accordingly. Despite the growing scientific evidence available when the most recent review was conducted, the Trump administration chose not to strengthen the standard. However, HEI noted that “emissions of traditional pollutants like PM 2.5 have dropped significantly since the 1970s because of the use of cleaner automobile fuels and the rise of natural gas in power generation instead of coal.”

Policy Analysis

Hazel Chandler, a 76-year-old living in Phoenix, Arizona and a consultant to the non-profit group, Moms Clean Air Force, says she is a prime example of someone living with the cumulative effects of more than 40 years of air pollution. Chandler says, “I can tell by the pressure in my lungs and in my chest, the amount of coughing … I can tell if I wake up with a really bad cough, it’s probably a high pollution day.” Chandler says she moved to Phoenix when she was about 30 years old “and it still has impacted my ability to breathe.” She says, “If it’s affecting older people, what is it going to do to the children who are living here and breathing this their whole life?”

Jennifer L. Peel, head of epidemiology at Colorado State University’s Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences, says there is an inherent challenge in studying areas that are not well monitored, such as rural communities and non-industrial towns, because it can be difficult to validate levels of exposure to pollution. However, Dr. Peel, who was not part of the Harvard research team and independently reviewed the study, called it an “amazing first step” and said, overall, the study was the most comprehensive she had seen.

Despite the data, some are not convinced that stronger regulations are the best solution. Lawyer and energy lobbyist, Jeffrey Holmstead, who served under both Bush administrations, including as assistant administrator for Air & Radiation for the EPA, and is now a Partner and head of the Environmental Strategies Group at Bracewell LLP (formerly Bracewell & Giuliani, the international law firm of Rudy Giuliani), says, “It’s a question of how much.”

Holmstead warns that a significant reduction in allowable limits would be “very costly” for companies, and notes that “in communities that do not have major industrial centers, much of the fine soot pollution comes from automobiles, making it difficult for state governments to regulate.” He says, “At what point do you say we’re going to prohibit any kind of combustion engines because everything contributes to PM 2.5?” Holmstead argues, “If you set a level that is overly-stringent, you basically prohibit any new economic development in certain parts of the country.”


Even Low Levels of Soot Can Be Deadly to Older People

Photo taken from: The New York Times

(click or tap to enlargen)

As we find ourselves at a critical juncture, deciding how best to mitigate an impending global climate disaster while trying to balance what policy analysts call the “Three E’s of sustainable development: Economy, Ecology, and Equity,” we must ask ourselves, what are we willing to sacrifice for economic development? Further, how can we reimagine economic development as we transition away from a fossil fuel dependent society? Other studies have already linked fine soot pollution to higher death rates from COVID-19, and we have seen that Black and other communities of color are at greater risk because they are more likely to be located near highways, power plants and other industrial facilities.

How do we respond when Daniel Greenbaum, president of the Health Effects Institute, reports that, “We found a risk of dying early from exposure to air pollution, even at very low levels of air pollution across the United States”? As far as professor Dominici is concerned, the new data is “highly significant” and “is important evidence for the EPA to consider.” Dominici says, “If we were to reduce PM 2.5, we would be saving a substantial amount of lives.” According to a spokesperson for the EPA, the agency is expected to propose a draft rule for a new national standard for fine soot pollution and PM 2.5 by summer and to issue a final rule by the spring of 2023.

Engagement Resources​

Click or tap on resource URL to visit links where available 

Clean Air Task Force (catf.us): Through technology innovation, policy change, and thought leadership, Clean Air Task Force drives impact to prevent catastrophic climate change through pragmatic solutions.

Health Effects Institute (healtheffects.org): A nonprofit corporation chartered in 1980 to provide high-quality, impartial, and relevant science on the health effects of air pollution. HEI has funded more than 330 research projects in North America, Europe, Asia, and Latin America, which have been published in more than 260 reports.

Moms Clean Air Force (MCAF): A community of over one million parents united against air and climate pollution to protect our children’s health. MCAF fights for Justice in Every Breath, recognizing the importance of equitable solutions in addressing air pollution and climate change.

Writer's Resources​

Click or tap on resource URL to visit links where available 

Even low levels of soot can be deadly to older people, research finds. The New York Ledger. (2022, January 26). Retrieved February 8, 2022, from https://thenyledger.com/business/even-low-levels-of-soot-can-be-deadly-to-older-people-research-finds/

Friedman, L. (2022, January 27). Minor soot levels linked to older American deaths, study finds – The Boston Globe. BostonGlobe.com. Retrieved February 8, 2022, from https://www.bostonglobe.com/2022/01/26/nation/minor-soot-levels-linked-older-american-deaths-study-finds/

Health Effects Institute. (2022, February 7). Assessing adverse health effects of long-term exposure to low levels of ambient air pollution: Implementation of causal inference methods. Health Effects Institute. Retrieved February 8, 2022, from https://www.healtheffects.org/publication/assessing-adverse-health-effects-long-term-exposure-low-levels-ambient-air-pollution-0

Soot – cancer-causing substances. National Cancer Institute. (2019, February 20). Retrieved February 8, 2022, from https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/substances/soot

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