WASHINGTON — Older Americans who regularly breathe even low levels of pollution from chimneys, car exhaust, wildfires and other sources are more likely to die early, according to a large-scale study released Wednesday.
Researchers from the Health Effects Institute, a group funded by the Environmental Protection Agency and by automakers and fossil fuel companies, examined health data from 68.5 million Medicare recipients in the United States. They found that if federal rules on tolerable levels of fine soot had been a little lower, as many as 143,000 deaths could have been prevented over the course of a decade.
Exposure to particulate matter has long been associated with respiratory diseases and impaired cognitive development in children. The tiny particles can enter the lungs and bloodstream to affect lung function, worsen asthma, and cause heart attacks and other serious illnesses. Previous research has shown that exposure to particulate matter contributed to approximately 20,000 deaths per year.
The new study is the first in the United States to document lethal effects of the particulate matter known as PM2.5 (because its width is 2.5 microns or less) on people living in rural areas and cities with little industry.
“We found a risk of premature death from exposure to air pollution even at very low levels of air pollution in the United States,” said Daniel S. Greenbaum, president of the Health Effects Institute.
The findings come as the Biden administration considers strengthening the national standard for PM 2.5, which is currently set at an annual average of 12 micrograms per cubic meter, a higher level than recommended by the World Health Organization.
Researchers concluded that between 2006 and 2016, 143,257 deaths could have been prevented if the standard had been tightened to 10 micrograms per cubic meter.
“If we reduced PM2.5, we would save a significant number of lives,” said Francesca Dominici, a Harvard biostatistician who led the study, which took four years to complete. “It’s very significant.”
“This is important evidence for EPA to consider,” added Dr. Dominic to it.
Other studies have linked fine soot pollution to higher death rates from Covid-19, with black and other communities of color at particular risk because they are more likely to be located near highways, power plants and other industrial facilities.
The Biden administration has made stricter regulation of emissions from power plants, factories and other industrial sites central to its strategy to address environmental justice.
By law, the EPA is required to review the latest science and update the soot standard every five years. The Trump administration chose not to tighten the standard when it conducted its most recent assessment, despite growing scientific evidence of the harm to public health caused by particulate matter.
Using the public records of the 68.5 million Medicare recipients — nearly every American over the age of 65 — the researchers focused on people who live in rural areas and other places that aren’t properly monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency, either because they are sparsely populated or because pollution levels are not considered as high as in cities or along the crowded East Coast.
Karin Stein, 60, moved to Iowa from her native Colombia in 1980 as a college student and now lives with her family in Jasper County. Even in her relatively rural area near Rock Creek State Park, she said, smoke from wildfires aggravates her heart condition and is a major concern.
“It’s idyllic,” she said. “But you’ve got the wildfires in the West, or it’s harvest time. We assume that there are no air quality problems. But that’s just untrue.”
An EPA spokesperson said the agency was expected to propose a draft rule by the summer and issue a final rule in the spring of 2023.
Polluting industries are expected to lobby heavily against a tougher new rule on soot pollution.
The American Petroleum Institute, which represents oil and gas companies, did not review the Health Effects Institute’s research, but questioned the need for stricter pollution regulations. In a statement, the trade group said: “Current scientific evidence indicates that existing standards are effectively designed to protect public health and comply with legal requirements.”
The institute noted that emissions of traditional pollutants such as PM 2.5 have fallen significantly since the 1970s due to the use of cleaner automotive fuels and the rise of natural gas in electricity generation instead of coal.
Some experts said companies acquiesced in the likelihood that the Biden administration will tighten the rule, but were concerned about how far it would go.
“The question is how much,” said Jeffrey Holmstead, a lawyer who served with the EPA in both Bush administrations.
A significant reduction in allowable limits would be “very costly” for businesses, Mr Holmstead said. He also noted that in communities that don’t have major industrial centers, much of the fine soot pollution comes from automobiles, making it difficult for state governments to regulate.
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“At what point are you saying we’re going to ban any kind of combustion engines because everything contributes to PM2.5?” said Mr Holmstead. “And if you set too strict a level, you basically forbid any new economic development in certain parts of the country.”
Still, the science documenting the health effects of exposure to air pollution has grown since Harvard University produced its groundbreaking study “Six Cities” in 1990, which found that living in heavily polluted cities can take two to three years off a person’s life. care.
Hazel Chandler, 76, lives in Phoenix and said she considered herself a prime example of someone living with the cumulative effects of more than 40 years of air pollution.
Ms. Chandler said when she moved to Arizona from Southern California in 1977, the relatively clear air was a breath of fresh air. But as the city’s population exploded, so did its asthma and respiratory problems.
“Sometimes we have several pollution days in a row and I don’t have to look at the air quality warnings anymore,” she said. “I know.”
“I can tell from the pressure in my lungs and in my chest, the amount of cough, I have a chronic cough from it,” Ms Chandler. “I can tell if I wake up with a really bad cough. It’s probably a high pollution day.”
Ms Chandler, a consultant with Moms Clean Air Force, a nonprofit environmental organization, said she was concerned about older people with heart disease and other health problems that could be exacerbated by pollution. But she’s even more concerned about young children.
“I moved to Phoenix when I was about 30 and it still affects my ability to breathe,” she said. “If it affects older people, what’s it going to do to the kids who live here and breathe this all their lives?”
Jennifer L. Peel, chief of epidemiology in Colorado State University’s Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences, said studying areas that aren’t well-monitored posed a challenge because it could be difficult to validate levels of pollution exposure.
But dr. Peel, who was not part of the research team and independently reviewed the study, called it an “astonishing first step” and said the study was overall the most comprehensive she’d seen.