Study: Air pollution rules not strict enough
Legal levels high enough still to cause some deaths
Air pollution levels that meet national standards are still high enough to contribute to early deaths among the elderly and minorities, according to a wide-ranging study in a peer-reviewed medical journal.
The findings by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health published Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine prompted the study’s researchers and the journal’s editors to criticize Trump administration budget cuts to environmental policies and agencies.
The Harvard researchers analyzed causes of death related to exposure to air pollutants for nearly 61 million Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries, from 2000 to 2012.
The pollutants analyzed included particulate matter — small particles and liquid droplets in the air — no bigger than 2.5 micrograms, identified as PM2.5 and known to have negative health effects on the heart and lungs.
PM2.5 is found in emissions from construction sites, unpaved roads, fields, smokestacks and fires. They form in the atmosphere in reaction to sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, pollutants from power plants, industries and automobiles, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Researchers also compared rates of decreased life-expectancy linked to exposure to ozone gas, which can damage the lungs, cause chest pains and worsen chronic respiratory diseases such as asthma, the EPA says on its website.
Since 1970, the EPA established national goals to cap rates of PM2.5 called the National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS). The standard is reevaluated every five years, with the goal in 2012 to limit rates to 12 micrograms.
From 2000 to 2015, the EPA noted a 37 percent decrease of PM2.5 in the air.
In the study “Air Pollution and Mortality in the Medicare Population,” the Harvard researchers found that the death rate increased by 7.3 percent for every 10-microgram increase of PM2.5, which translates to 120,000 fatalities related to exposure among people age 65 and older, the study’s lead author Qian Di explained to Reuters.
Francesca Dominici, a Harvard professor of biostatistics and co-author of the study, said the EPA has done an admirable job in reducing the number of pollutants nationally to today’s low levels, but the study focused on the cause of mortality in areas where PM2.5 levels were below the standard, showing that the accepted level needs to be reevaluated.
“Indeed, in the last 20 years we have been seeing the level of pollution going down quite dramatically,” Ms. Dominici told The Washington Times. “So what the paper is showing is we need to continue to take this issue very seriously.”
“I can tell you for sure what we should not do,” she added, “which is to take steps backwards toward this issue.”
An accompanying editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine criticized President Trump and his administration for taking steps that would cut funding from the EPA and implement policies that work against environmental protection, such as opening leases on new coal mines and dismantling guidelines that would reduce emissions from coalfired power plants.
Its authors — Rebecca Berger, Ramya Ramaswami, Caren G. Solomon and Dr. Jeffrey M. Drazen — said funding cuts to the EPA would harm the agency’s ability to enforce regulations, and they denounced the president’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, commitments by 192 nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change.