Put Aside Global Warming and Consider Evidence That Air Pollution in the U.S. Harms Local Populations

Last Thursday, National Public Radio reported on a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine which offers evidence that air pollution continues to kill thousands in the United States every year. (NPR). An abstract can be viewed at the New England Journal of Medicine website here.

The study, conducted by a team from Harvard's T. H. Chan School of Public Health, concludes that approximately 12,000 lives could be saved every year by reducing the emission level of fine particulate matter by 1 microgram per cubic meter of air below current U.S. standards. While air quality has considerably improved over the conditions in the 1960's that prompted major amendments to the Clean Air Act, the study provides evidence that more could be done.

EPA's own webpage regarding air pollution acknowledges that both particle pollution and ground-level ozone pollution remain at unhealthy levels in "numerous areas of the country." (Clean Air Act Overview). In support, EPA refers generally to what is represented as an extensive body of scientific evidence showing the long and short-term harm posed by ozone pollution and fine particulate matter. On the ozone issue, it is noteworthy that a House committee just approved a bill to slow the process of updating ozone regulations every ten years rather than the current five-year updates. (Committee Approves Bill Slowing Ozone Regulations)

As for particulates, a short history of some of the relevant studies is reflected in a recent article republished in Scientific American in early June (after first appearing earlier in the month in The Conversation). It recounts a study done by a team from Carnegie Mellon University on the specific impacts of small particles primarily resulting from power plant emissions. They concluded that continuing the trend of shifting from coal-fired to natural gas fired power plants would save lives and also save tens of billions of dollars each year. Interestingly, the study also concluded that the beneficial impacts of conversion to natural gas would not have a significant impact on global warming, primarily because natural gas production results in emission of methane gas, which is much more powerful as a heat trapping constituent than is carbon dioxide emitted from burning coal. Thus, while the benefits of natural gas are seen as significant, this report views those benefits as being localized, not global.

For years, attention and debate have centered on the worldwide impacts of air emissions on global temperatures. Among other things, this seems to have diverted attention from the impact of current emissions levels on local populations. While a refocusing may simply set off a new round of debate over the legitimacy of the science behind such studies, substantive consideration of potential local impacts of air emissions may be something that more people in the country can relate to and would like to see pursued.

Posted in: Air Pollution
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