The global battle against climate change has produced some interesting studies in recent years. While scientists are looking at the bigger picture regarding global climate change, the rest of society is feeling the impact of human-engineered pollution from a much closer perspective. A recent report published by the American Thoracic Society (or ATS) has revealed that increasing levels of PM2.5, as well as ozone, is leading to stunning levels of sickness and disease. According to a study performed by the Marron Institute at New York University, the city of Los Angeles now leads the United States in pollution-related deaths.
While the news regarding deaths related to pollution can feel depressing, to say the least, there is somewhat of a silver lining. According to the same research we cited above, overall levels of air pollution within the United States has been decreasing, overall. With that being said there have been so-called ‘stubborn pockets’ of air pollution and ozone throughout the country, with Los Angeles possessing the worst of those pockets. To truly understand the details within this study, we need to take a step back to learn about pollution.
The American Thoracic Society and the Marron Institute of New York University both centered their studies on ozone and something known as PM2.5. PM2.5 is a type of pollution that is ejected into the atmosphere by way of cars, power plants, industrial plants, and fire. These particles are microscopic in nature and cannot be seen with the naked eye. However, these same PM2.5 particles can travel through their air, into your body, and down into your bloodstream. This special type of pollution works its way through your lungs until it has spread throughout the rest of your body. The result of exposure to PM2.5 can include respiratory illness, cancer, and irritation of your orifices. It’s simple to see that PM2.5 is a real problem, especially in congested areas like Los Angeles. Ozone, on the other hand, builds up as the sun reacts with pollutants in our atmosphere. The pollutants that the sun reacts to can include PM2.5, nitric oxides, and other organic compounds. Exposure to this type of pollution can lead to similar issues as PM2.5, including respiratory illness.
Tracking PM2.5 levels is an ideal way to address the pollution that is being fabricated by man. The United States had joined much of the first world in its efforts to curb PM2.5 pollutions. The levels of the dangerous pollutant had been trending downward until roughly 2014 when reductions seemed to have plateaued. The introduction of President Trump and his pro-pollution policies has, in turn, led to increased fears that pollution levels will begin to rise once again. The researchers at ATS and the Marron Institute have been thus far wary of ascribing any sort of permanence to the current plateauing pollution levels. There is hope that levels of PM2.5 will continue to trend downward, but a notoriously anti-EPA government body has introduced some level of anxiety into the system.
According to data pulled from the Environmental Protection Agency, Air Quality System data has helped to unveil which countries are struggling the most with preventable, problematic PM2.5 pollution. Air quality data pulled from the EPA centered on changes ranging from the year 2008 to the year 2017. During that time frame, PM2.5 data was collected from 530 different counties in the United States. An additional 726 counties were tested for health problems related to ozone pollution. According to the study, deaths relating to PM2.5 and ozone were up to 7,140 in 2017. While over 7,000 deaths sound like a staggering number, especially as it pertains to pollution, this number represented a stark reduction from 2010. In 2010, there were more than 12,600 excess deaths due to pollution. What this study clearly shows is that the United States made strong strides forward in the reduction of problematic PM2.5 levels. Unfortunately, ozone reductions were not nearly as significant.
While measuring deaths relating to pollution is the most important bit of data from this controversial study, it is not the only information that has been gleaned. According to the same study, more than 5,600 people suffered from serious illnesses in 2017 due to exposure to PM2.5. Additionally, ozone exposure caused another 10,080 serious cases of illness. The study focused on a wide range of problematic conditions that would have been caused by pollution exposure. Some conditions included in the study were asthma, reduced cardiovascular fitness, chronic bronchitis, and more. Some of these conditions are manageable while others would land someone in the hospital, seemingly overnight. Combined, more than 15,000 people experienced serious harm because of preventable pollution. A large number of people from this study were located in Los Angeles. Los Angeles led the way for deaths-by-PM2.5 and ozone in 2017 with San Bernardino, Ontario, Pittsburgh, Fresno, and Riverside coming right behind them. California was well represented on this list, which doesn’t bring any semblance of comfort to the state.
The Clean Air Act was originally passed in 1970 by the Environmental Protection Agency. By 1990, conservative estimates claimed that 184,000 deaths were prevented due to the legislation. Additional studies posited that more than 10 million cases of respiratory illness were also prevented as a result of the Clean Air Act. Put into more concrete terms, the EPA estimates that more than 200 million days of lost work or school were saved as a result of the legislative act. The EPA continued to push new legislation into the early aughts, supported by leaders like President Obama, President Bush, and President Clinton. President Trump, however, has taken a dangerous and dark turn away from the EPA. The Trump Administration has been notoriously hostile to government oversight as it pertains to issues like pollution. There are rumors abound on Capitol Hill that the Trump Administration is putting policies in place that could lead to a pollution relapse, thus undoing decades of work and millions of saved lives.
Gary Ewart is the Chief of Advocacy at the ATS. Ewart has been effusive in his praise of the Clean Air Act while he has also been measured in his response to work done by the Trump Administration. Ewart has argued that Trump’s proposed rollback of the Clean Air Act could lead to serious spikes in greenhouse gas emissions. Ewart goes on to argue that this policy rollback could end up undoing years of hard work within communities all throughout the country. Ewart was quick to point out that large cities would be hit the hardest by this policy change, a notion that Ewart did not think was coincidental.
The ATS report was essentially a way for environmental scientists to argue against the proposed pollution rollback from the Trump Administration. While their argument was based in science, the ATS could not help but make a humanist appeal to the Trump Administration. The researchers in charge of the study argued that hundreds of people would die and thousands more would become chronically sick due to the policy reduction. The study cited extensive data collected by the EPA, some of which we have cited above, as support for their argument. The study went on to highlight the fact that population levels continue to increase. As population levels increase, the fight against pollution needs to ramp up, not be scaled back.
Kevin Cromar is the Director at the Air Quality Program which is hosted by the Marron Institute. Cromar is also a professor of health and environmental medicine at NYU’s School of Medicine. Cromar argued that the impact of pollution on daily living should help to motivate cities, states, and politicians to reduce their local pollutants. Unfortunately, partisan bickering is getting in the way of this principled discussion. California has been particularly under fire due to partisan divides and this has even led to political grandstanding in relation to wildfires. Wildfires contribute excess pollution to the atmosphere and funding to get them under control can be notoriously hard to access. The Trump Administration has been openly hostile to the state of California and its local emergencies.
As President Trump wages open warfare on the Clean Air Act, scientists around the world are working together in order to introduce more information to the public hemisphere. The study that has been cited, ‘Trends in Excess Morbidity and Mortality Associated with Air Pollution’, was introduced at the American Thoracic Society Conference this past year.