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Air Pollution Increases Risk of Death, Even At Levels Below National Standards: Study

A large-scale national study involving seniors suggests that side effects of air pollution, even at levels deemed safe under national standards, increases the risk of premature death. 

In findings published this week in the The New England Journal of Medicine, Harvard researchers indicate that just a small decrease in the levels of particulate matter in the air across throughout United States could prevent thousands of deaths.

Researchers examined data from more than 60.9 million Medicare beneficiaries over the age of 65, across a seven year period from 2000 to 2012. They analyzed more than 460 million person years of followup.

Air pollution levels were estimated for each person, factoring in the zip code of residence, including urban and rural areas throughout the entire U.S. They focused on fine particulate matter known as PM2.5 and levels of ozone.

If PM2.5 levels could be decreased by 1 microgram per cubic meter nationally, more than 12,000 people could avoid death each year from pollution related causes, according to the findings. If the ozone level could be lowered by 1 part per billion across the U.S., nearly 2,000 lives would be saved annually.

Researchers linked increases of 10 mg per cubic meter in PM2.5 to a seven percent increased risk of death. Similarly, increases of ozone by 10 ppm increased person’s death risk by one percent.

The increased risk of premature death from air pollution was particularly prominent among men, racial minorities, and low-income populations. In fact, African Americans had a three-fold increased risk of death compared to the national average.

Those findings are in line with claims by environmental justice activists that businesses and corporations, and sometimes the government, are more likely to conduct activities that negatively impact the environment near where minorities work and live, due to their reduced political and financial power.

A study published earlier this year indicated exposure to air pollution increased a child’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes and becoming obese, especially among Latino children. Another study concluded minority families are more likely to live in the path of harmful air pollution.

Increases of PM2.5 by 10 mg per cubic meter in areas where PM2.5 measured less than 12 mg per cubic meter resulted in an increased risk of death by more than 13 percent.

Overall, researchers indicated exposure to air pollution, even at levels below National Ambient Air Quality Standards established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), increased a person’s risk of premature death.

A study published in 2016 by the World Health Organization indicated more than 90 percent of the world’s population lives in areas with high levels of air pollution, increasing their risk of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Another report estimated more than 4.5 million people will die from air pollution related causes by the year 2040, unless drastic measures are taken worldwide.

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