By David E. Hubler
Contributor, EDM Digest
Air pollution is not often included on anyone’s list of imminent public health hazards, but it remains a killer.
Air pollution caused more than 5.5 million people to die prematurely in 2013, according to research presented at the 2017 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington, D.C.
More than half of those deaths occurred in India and China. Air pollution killed 1.6 million people in China and 1.4 million people in India in 2013, the Guardian said.
Air pollution was responsible for many as 1.6 million deaths in India in 2016, according to a study by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
In China, thousands of citizens die each year from some of the worst air pollution in the world. In a 2016 study, a team of Chinese and American researchers found that air pollution caused by burning coal accounted for 366,000 premature deaths in 2013, the Health Effects Institute at China’s Tsinghua University reported.
Air Pollution Also a Problem in US
But you don’t have to go to India or China to experience the perils of air pollution. You can visit Orlando, Florida.
In January 2014, the Orlando Sentinel reported that more than 300,000 cars a day traveled through Griffin Park, the city’s first public housing project that opened in 1940.
In the four years since the Sentinel story, traffic in the area has only increased. So too has air pollution.
Griffin Park Encapsulated in an ‘Oval of Pollution’
Today, Interstate 4, State Road 408 and various on-off ramps form a loop that encapsulates Griffin Park within an “oval of pollution,” Robert Cassanello, a history professor at the University of Central Florida, told Huffington Post.
“By modern-day standards, Griffin Park is a planner's nightmare — a neighborhood encircled by roads and subjected to noise and pollution 24 hours a day,” Huffington Post noted. “Whatever trees once buffered the noxious fumes and the roar of cars on all sides have been cut down. From above, you see a grid of apartment buildings encircled menacingly within a loop of the interchange, as if inside a noose.”
Although air pollution in the U.S. has generally declined since the passage of the Clean Air Act of 1970, it still causes 200,000 early deaths each year, according to a 2013 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Vehicle emissions are the biggest contributor to these deaths; men, poor people and African-Americans are disproportionately at risk.
Evidence Linking Air Pollution to Risk of Early Death Has Solidified
“In the past five to 10 years, the evidence linking air pollution exposure to risk of early death has really solidified and gained scientific and political traction,” said Steven Barrett, an assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT who participated in the 2013 study. “There’s a realization that air pollution is a major problem in any city, and there’s a desire to do something about it.”
Barrett defines “early death” as someone dying “about a decade earlier than he or she otherwise might have.”
Harvard Study Says African-Americans Particularly at Risk for Air Pollution Deaths
According to a 2017 Harvard University study of air pollution in the U.S. published in The New England Journal of Medicine, African-Americans are about three times more likely to die from exposure to airborne pollutants than other demographic groups.
The study concluded that many of these deaths could be prevented if federally mandated air quality standards were tightened. Reducing current levels of so-called fine particulate matter by just one microgram per cubic meter of air would save about 12,000 lives every year, the MIT scientists determined.
The nationwide study involved all Medicare beneficiaries from 2000 through 2012. That is a population of 61 million people, with 460 million person-years of follow-up.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Environmental Protection Agency warn that air pollution also contributes to asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart attacks and strokes. Heart disease is the primary cause of death in the U.S. and stroke is the fourth leading cause of death.
More information about air pollution and respiratory health is available at the CDC website.