Even though the air may be cleaner than in decades past, Americans are still breathing in polluted air. And this pollution is causing the deaths of thousands nationwide.
A June study released by the The New England Journal of Medicine shows that despite living in conditions proved adequate by the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans are still dying simply by breathing in polluted air.
Francesca Dominici, a professor of biostatistics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the head researcher of the study, set out to discover the exact toll that air pollution takes on American lungs and lives. Her team analyzed data from federal air monitoring stations and satellites, then created a picture of the zones of air pollution in every zip code. They choose the areas with the highest levels of pollution and compared it to the mortality rates in the area using data from 60 million Medicare patients living between 2000 to 2012.
What they found was shocking — for every increase of 10 micrograms in what the researchers called “fine particulate matter,” or small particles of dust and soot, the death rate increased by 7.3%. For perspective, that is equal to 120,000 fatalities in people ages 65 and older, Reuters reports.
According to the researchers, about 12,000 lives could be saved every year by simply reducing pollution by one microgram per cubic meter of air every year. And while there are other causes of respiratory illnesses and diseases such as radon gas, which is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States behind smoking, researchers believe that their findings are important in proving that our current environmental standards need to change.
“We are now providing bullet-proof evidence that we are breathing harmful air,” says Dominici. Our air is contaminated … It’s very strong, compelling evidence that currently, the safety standards are not safe enough.”
Not only that, but according to NPR, the sickness and fatalities caused by pollution disproportionally affect African Americans and those in poverty up to three times more than Caucasians. While Dominici doesn’t have any concrete evidence as to why this is happening to these specific demographics, she believes it is due to the fact that African Americans tend to live in areas with more pollution and have less access to healthcare.
For now, Dominici and her team are pushing both the federal government and the EPA to change their guidelines on pollution standards as a way to protect more Americans.
“I think it is the responsibility of the government to make sure that our air is clean,” she says.