Around 200,000 Americans Die Every Year From Air Pollution That Meets EPA Standard

Air pollution kills around 200,000 Americans each year even when pollution levels remain below the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's current guidelines, a report published in JAMA Network Open has found.

A team of scientists identified nine causes of death associated with exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5), including three not previously recognized—chronic kidney disease, hypertension and dementia.

Cardiovascular disease, cerebrovascular disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, type 2 diabetes, lung cancer, and pneumonia also contributed to the count.

Exhaust fumes from truck
Truck releases exhaust fumes, contributing to levels of pollution a new study suggests could be causing just under 200,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. Joe Raedle/Getty

PM2.5 are pollution particles (or droplets) equal or smaller to 2.5 microns—a size so minuscule it is roughly 30 times smaller than a strand of human hair, according to the New York State Department of Health. Exposure to PM2.5 has been linked to several health conditions, including psychiatric disorders, mental health disorders (including depression), dementia, emphysema and lung disease. There is also evidence that it is making us less intelligent.

In this study, researchers found lower income communities and black Americans were the worst affected by high levels of PM2.5, while counties in "swaths" of the Midwest, Appalachia and states like Ohio, Louisiana and Missouri had some of the highest rates of deaths linked to air pollution.

"Our results provide further evidence that racial disparities and nonracial socioeconomic disparities contribute measurably and independently to the burden of death associated with PM2.5 exposure," the study's authors said.

Not only were black people more likely to be exposed to higher levels of pollution, but the researchers found they appeared to be more affected, and were likely to become sicker, from it too.

"I went into it thinking pollution is color blind," co-author Dr Ziyad Al-Aly, Director of the Clinical Epidemiology Center at Washington University in St Louis, told The Guardian. "Actually, pollution itself does discriminate."

Crawford coal power plant in Chicago
Coal powered plants like the Crawford coal power plant in Chicago, Illinois (pictured) release harmful PM2.5 into the atmosphere. Last month, a study from researchers from Carnegie Mellon found air quality in the U.S. has worsened since 2016, resulting in 9,700 more deaths in 2018 than there had been in 2016. Scott Olson/Getty

These conclusions are based on the results of a decade-long cohort study monitoring the health of more than 45 million—predominantly male, predominantly white—veterans. Over the 10 years, 36.4 percent of the veterans (1,647, 071) died of various causes, including several linked to air pollution. This information was then applied to models programmed to estimate the total number of deaths that may be caused by exposure to PM2.5.

The model's calculations suggest that every year there may be more than 55,000 deaths from cardiovascular disease that is caused, ultimately, by poor air quality. A further 40,000 deaths from cerebrovascular disease, 19,000 deaths from dementia and 17,500 deaths from lung cancer were also linked to PM2.5 exposure. In total, the researchers estimated there may be almost 200,000 deaths caused by levels of pollution that meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standard.

"There is a considerable national discussion about the current EPA standards for air pollutants and whether further reduction might yield improved health outcomes," the study's authors write.

"An extensive body of scientific evidence suggests substantial health gains realized by cleaner air, and that further reduction in PM2.5 might lead to even greater reduction in burden of disease."