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After Years Of Improvement, U.S. Air Quality Worsening, Threatening Thousands Of Lives: Report

Levels of air pollution in the United States have increased over the past few years, reversing decades of improvement and raising concerns about the health side effects for thousands of Americans.

Researchers with the National Bureau of Economic Research published a report last month which reveals air pollution levels increased by more than 5% from 2016 to 2018. The increase may be responsible for nearly 10,000 premature deaths and billions of dollars in damage last year, according to the findings.

The study looked at data from the Air Quality System (AQS) database of daily monitored readings, including total fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) made of ammonium nitrate, sulfate and elemental carbon from 653 counties nationwide.

The dataset is massive, including 1.8 million observations per day from 2009 to 2018.

The report specifically focused on the annual average of PM 2.5, which is a type of air pollution made up of ultra-fine particles of soot, dirt, and dust smaller than 2.5 micrometers or 30 times smaller than a human hair. The particles come from car exhaust, fossil fuel emissions, and emissions from diesel vehicles.

According to the findings, there was a 24% decline in air pollution levels from 2009 to 2016. However, from 2016 to 2018 there was a 5.5% increase.

Increases occurred in multiple census regions and in counties that were in and out of attainment with National Ambient Air Quality Standards.

The health implications of the increase in air pollution are significant, the researchers warn. Not only was the increase linked to nearly 10,000 early deaths in 2018 alone, but it also is connected to $89 billion in related costs, including healthcare costs.

The study authors also warn the increased air pollution has far reaching side effects for Americans, though some are difficult to quantify.

Research published in August indicated long-term air pollution exposure may cause lung damage similar to smoking a pack of cigarettes every day for nearly 30 years. Patients who had never smoked developed emphysema from air pollution exposure.

Another study indicated short-term exposure to air pollution increases the risk of death from heart and lung conditions.

Cases of asthma are increasing and worsening, and other studies are linking air pollution exposure to early death in more than 30,000 Americans every year. Another study indicated it can shorten a child’s life expectancy by 20 months.

Researchers warn the findings of the new study emphasize a need for further examination of the effects of air pollution.

Contributing factors to the recent increases in air pollution levels include increased economic activity, increases in wildfires, and decreases in Clean Air Act enforcement actions. The reduced enforcement is largely a result of policy initiatives from the Trump administration, aimed to weaken fuel-economy standards and replace former President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan.

The data indicates air pollution is increasing, but concurrent increases in regulatory and enforcement action as a response would be expected. That is not the case, the researchers note. The data does not indicate that enforcement action is occurring, which is only worsening the increases in air pollution levels and leading to further health implications.

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