I’ve got shocking news: Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) recently published a study revealing that life expectancy increases as particulate matter air pollution decreases. Not surprised? Me either.
The study tracked health and pollution in 545 counties in the U.S. over the course of 7 years, beginning in 2000. The study particularly focused on particulate matter (PM) pollution, which is comprised of a combination of small solid particles and liquid particles. PM pollution can come from vehicle exhaust, smoke from forest fires, and the reaction of gases emitted by power plants with the surrounding air. When inhaled, PM can cause heart and lung problems.
Do these findings really surprise anyone? It seems fairly intuitive that pollution is bad for human health, so reducing pollution would be better for us. But it’s good that we finally have proof of this link. Clean air regulations promulgated by the EPA are health-based standards, rather than a balance between welfare benefits and economic costs as are most federal standards. So if EPA can prove that stricter air quality regulations will demonstrably improve health, they can and must increase air quality standards.
In fact, EPA just issued a new limit for particulate soot (black carbon) emitted by smokestacks, diesel trucks, and other sources. The American Lung Association (ALA) has estimated that this new standard will save 15,000 lives annually because reduced exposure to soot will lower the risk of heart attacks, strokes, lung cancer, and asthma attacks. Dr. Norman Edelman of the ALA calls soot a “lethal pollutant,” so reducing soot emissions should undoubtedly save lives.
But PM pollution isn’t just bad for human health – it also adversely impacts the environment. Once the PM pollution falls out of the atmosphere it can cause acidification of lakes and streams, nutrient depletion of soil, and damage to forests and crops. All of these occurrences disrupt the health of a larger ecosystem and can have a far-reaching ripple effect. Soot, in particular, can also contribute to climate change by absorbing additional sunlight. For example, when soot lands on snow or sea ice, it reduces the area’s ability to reflect sunlight, thus accelerating melting.
While none of this news is shocking, perhaps it will spark some much-needed action on climate change. The emissions that are contributing so significantly to climate change are also hurting human health. And that makes total sense, doesn’t it? We’re part of the natural ecosystem, so something that harms the rest of that ecosystem is bound to hurt us as well, right? So for those people who still aren’t worried about climate change, there exists an even more personally-significant reason to take action – your own health and wellbeing.
Now that the link between lower pollution and increased health has been proven, there is no reason not to act. EPA is already making strides in the right direction with stricter air quality standards, so let’s keep up the good work!