Nine million people each year die at an earlier age than they have to because of air pollution. It’s the world’s biggest environmental cause of disease and early death. But progress in tackling it has been slow. In many countries, environmental needs range from low to no priority.
Recently, the UK’s Chief Medical Officer said, “This needs to change. As a society we need to regain a focus on pollution as a threat to human health.”
A study focusing on only one type of air pollution has just been published. This particular toxin alone was found to reduce lifespan by one year on average worldwide. The authors said cutting air pollution would save a considerable number of lives.
Which state and which city in the U.S. have the highest risk from air pollution?
Kills 200,000 Americans Each Year
Since 1950 over 140,000 new chemicals have been created. This has led to serious environmental and health challenges.
Five years ago, MIT researchers looked at air pollution arising from industry, electric power generation, road, rail and marine transportation and residential materials.
They reported that it kills 200,000 Americans prematurely each year. The state that suffered most was California, with 21,000 early deaths. Baltimore was the most polluted city, with 130 untimely deaths for every 100,000 residents.
The lead author, Steven Barrett, assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics, said that a person will typically die ten years earlier than they otherwise would if they contract a disease caused directly by air pollution.
PM2.5 is Deadly
Researchers from the US, Canada and the UK looked specifically at data gathered from satellites and outdoor pollution meters to calculate the amount of particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns (PM2.5) – 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair.
In other words, really small.
This type of pollutant is emitted from many sources including roads and construction, dust storms, wildfires, agricultural crops, auto and truck tailpipes, coal-fired power plants, boilers and wood stoves.
Why focus on the tiny particles?
Because they pose the greatest health risk. They’re inhaled deep into the lungs and can even enter the bloodstream. They are known to increase the risk of lung and heart disease and worsen chronic health conditions like asthma and bronchitis.
Looking at 185 countries, the researchers found the worst affected was Egypt, where average lifespan was lowered by two years. In India, the reduction in life was an average of one-and-a-half years. Here in America, we’re comparatively lucky. The average life here is cut short by four months.
Clean Air Would Save More Lives Than a Cure for Lung and Breast Cancer
What could you do with four extra months? It’s something to think about. . .
The lead author of the report, published in August, was assistant professor Joshua Apte from the University of Texas.
“The fact that fine particle air pollution is a major global killer is already well known,” he observed. “Here, we were able to systematically identify how air pollution also substantially shortens lives…”
He went on to say that the effect of air pollution is “considerably larger than the benefit in survival we might see if we found cures for both lung and breast cancer combined.”
The Air Quality Index (AQI) assesses five major pollutants and keeps track of the outside air quality for more than 300 cities across the US.
If you live in a city with a population above 350,000, you can check the quality of the air every day, although many smaller communities also choose to issue daily reports.
When the AQI index climbs above 100 it will affect people with respiratory and heart conditions. Everyone else will have their health affected above 150. A reading over 300 is considered hazardous. You can find the index at www.airnow.gov.
If the air quality outside is poor, you can protect yourself with a portable air purifier that is worn around the neck It emits electrically charged ions that get transferred to pollutants in the air. This repels them and they fall to the ground.
Another option is to wear a mask specifically designed to filter out particulate matter using HEPA (high efficiency particulate assistance) technology.