Existing air quality rules in the U.S. are not enough to prevent tens of thousands of premature deaths each year, according to a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Researchers used 12 years of data — health records from more than 60 million Medicare beneficiaries, combined with a massive databank of pollution readings — to link specific air quality levels to death rates.
‘There is not really a safe level of air pollution.’
– Qian Di, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
They found that for every increase of just 10 micrograms in small-particle pollution, known as PM2.5, the death rate went up 7.3 per cent. That’s the equivalent of 120,000 fatalities among people age 65 and older, lead author Qian Di of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston told Reuters Health in a telephone interview.
For every 10 part-per-billion rise in ozone concentration, the mortality rate rose by 1.1 per cent, producing an extra 19,000 deaths just among the elderly.
Even in years when the concentrations in a region were low, “we continued to see significant associations between exposure and mortality,” Di and his colleagues wrote in the NEJM.
Their conclusion: current U.S. rules are not strict enough to prevent pollution-related deaths, and further reductions in pollution will produce a big drop in fatalities.
“It is clear from this study that there is not really a safe level of air pollution,” said Dr. Brian W. Christman, vice chair of the department of medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, who was not involved in the research.
“The Clean Air Act and the Environmental Protection Agency have done great work, but the data indicates that additional effort to reduce PM2.5 and ozone would save lives,” Christman, who is also a spokesman for the American Lung Association, told Reuters Health by phone.
“As a matter of fact, further reduction in PM2.5 below the [federal standard] of 12 micrograms per cubic metre are likely to be even more effective than previous reductions.”
Senior study author Francesca Dominici, a professor of biostatistics at Harvard, told Reuters Health that she hoped the findings “will change the course of recent discussions about dismantling EPA and EPA research and leaving the Paris agreement” designed to slow global climate change by reducing pollution levels.