Even low levels of soot can be deadly for older people, research shows

WASHINGTON — Older Americans who regularly breathe in even low levels of pollution from smokestacks, automobile exhaust, wildfires and o...


WASHINGTON — Older Americans who regularly breathe in even low levels of pollution from smokestacks, automobile exhaust, wildfires and other sources are more likely to die early, according to a major study released on Wednesday.

Researchers from the Health Effects Institute, a group funded by the Environmental Protection Agency as well as automakers and fossil fuel companies, looked at the health data of 68.5 million Medicare beneficiaries across the United States. They found that if the federal rules for allowable levels of fine soot had been slightly lower, up to 143,000 deaths could have been prevented over a decade.

Exposure to fine particles has long been linked to respiratory diseases and impaired cognitive development in children. The tiny particles can enter the lungs and bloodstream and affect lung function, exacerbate asthma, and trigger heart attacks and other serious illnesses. Previous research has found that exposure to fine particulate matter contributes to approximately 20,000 deaths per year.

The new study is the first in the United States to document the deadly effects of particulate matter known as PM 2.5 (because its width is 2.5 microns or less) on people who live in areas rural and towns with little industry.

“We found a risk of dying prematurely from exposure to air pollution, even at very low levels of air pollution in the United States,” said Daniel S. Greenbaum, president of Health Effects. Institute.

The findings come as the Biden administration plans to boost the national standard for PM 2.5, which is currently set at an annual average of 12 micrograms per cubic meter, a level above that recommended by the World Health Organization. health.

The researchers concluded that 143,257 deaths could have been prevented between 2006 and 2016 if the standard had been tightened to 10 micrograms per cubic meter.

“If we were to reduce PM 2.5, we would save a substantial number of lives,” said Francesca Dominici, a Harvard biostatistics professor who led the study, which lasted four years. “It’s very meaningful.”

“This is important evidence for the EPA to consider,” added Dr. Dominici.

Other studies have linked fine soot pollution to higher death rates from Covid-19, with black people and other communities of color being particularly at risk as they are more likely to be spotted close to highways, power plants and other industrial facilities.

The Biden administration has placed tougher regulations on emissions from power plants, factories and other industrial sites at the heart of its environmental justice strategy.

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 strengthen the standard during the most recent review, despite growing scientific evidence of public health harm from particulate matter.

Using public data from the 68.5 million Medicare beneficiaries – almost all Americans over the age of 65 – the researchers focused on people living in rural areas and other places that are not well monitored. by the Environmental Protection Agency, either because they are sparsely populated or because pollution levels are not considered to be as high as in cities or along the congested East Coast.

Karin Stein, 60, moved to Iowa from her native Columbia as a college student in 1980 and now lives in Jasper County with her family. Even in her relatively rural area near Rock Creek State Park, she said, wildfire smoke is aggravating her heart condition and is a major concern.

“It’s idyllic,” she says. “But you have the wildfires in the West, or it’s harvest time. We assume there are no air quality issues. But that’s just plain wrong.

An EPA spokesperson said the agency should come up with a draft rule by summer and issue a final rule by spring 2023.

Polluting industries are expected to lobby hard against a tougher new rule on soot pollution.

The American Petroleum Institute, which represents oil and gas companies, did not review the institute’s research for health effects but questioned the need for stricter pollution rules. In a statement, the trade group said “current scientific evidence indicates that existing standards are indeed designed to protect public health and meet legal requirements.”

The institute noted that emissions of traditional pollutants like PM 2.5 have declined significantly since the 1970s due to the use of cleaner automotive fuels and the rise of natural gas in power generation. instead of coal.

Some experts said companies were resigned to the likelihood of the Biden administration tightening the rule, but worried about how far it might go.

“It’s a question of how much,” said Jeffrey Holmstead, an attorney who served at the EPA in both Bush administrations.

A significant reduction in permitted 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.

“At what point are you saying we’re going to ban all types of combustion engines because everything contributes to PM 2.5?” said Mr. Holmstead. “And if you set a level too strict, you basically prohibit any new economic development in certain parts of the country.”

Yet the science documenting the health consequences of exposure to air pollution has grown since Harvard University published its landmark “Six Cities” study in 1990, which found that living in heavily polluted cities can shorten a person’s life by two to three years.

Hazel Chandler, 76, lives in Phoenix and said she considers 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 clearer air was a relief. 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 watch the air quality alerts anymore,” she said. “I know.”

“I can tell by the pressure in my lungs and in my chest, the amount of coughing, I have a chronic cough,” Ms Chandler said. “I can tell if I wake up with a really bad cough, it’s probably a very polluted day.”

Ms Chandler, a consultant at Moms Clean Air Force, a non-profit environmental group, said she was worried about older people with heart problems and other health conditions that could be exacerbated by pollution. But she is even more concerned about young children.

“I moved to Phoenix when I was around 30 and it still impacted my ability to breathe,” she said. “If it affects the elderly, what is it going to do to the children who live here and breathe this all their lives?”

Jennifer L. Peel, chief epidemiologist in the Department of Environmental and Radiation Health Sciences at Colorado State University, said studying areas that are not well monitored presents a challenge because it could be difficult to validate pollution exposure levels.

But Dr Peel, who was not part of the research team and reviewed the study independently, called it an “incredible first step” and said that overall the study was the most complete she had seen.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Even low levels of soot can be deadly for older people, research shows
Even low levels of soot can be deadly for older people, research shows
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