Researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that pollution levels that meet national safety standards are still high enough to contribute to premature deaths. Seniors belonging to minority groups and those with low income are particularly more vulnerable to the deadly impacts of air pollutants.
No Safe Level Of Air Pollution
In the new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine on Thursday, June 29, data scientist Francesca Dominici, from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and colleagues analyzed the cause of death linked to exposure to air pollutants of more than 60 million Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries.
The pollutants that they analyzed included particulate matter, or PM2.5, which are small particles and liquids droplets in the air that are no bigger than 2.5 micrograms and are known to cause cardiovascular problems, and ozone, a gas that can trigger asthma and other respiratory conditions.
The researchers found that early deaths are still associated with what is considered safe levels of particulate matter and ozone.
The legal limit for fine particulate matter is 12 micrograms per cubic meter of air, but researchers found an increased risk of early death in seniors exposed to as little as 5 micrograms per cubic meter. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) limit for ozone is 70 parts per billion, but the researchers still detected increased mortality at levels as low as 30 ppb.
Air Pollutants More Dangerous For Certain Groups
The researchers likewise found that fine particulate matter appears to be particularly dangerous to certain minority groups, men, and poor people. Blacks, Asians, and Latinos face higher risk of premature death from PM2.5.
"In the entire Medicare population, there was significant evidence of adverse effects related to exposure to PM2.5 and ozone at concentrations below current national standards. This effect was most pronounced among self-identified racial minorities and people with low income," the researchers wrote in their study.
African-Americans have the highest risk. They are about three times more likely to die from exposure to air pollutants compared with the general population. The study did not investigate why this is the case but the researchers have some theories.
Dominici said that people of color are likely sicker and more affected by disease. They also more often live in areas with higher pollution levels, and have less access to healthcare.
The places of residence of African-Americans indeed offer hints as to why they are highly impacted by air pollution.
Seventy-one percent of African-Americans live in counties that violate national air pollution standards and 68 percent of them live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant, which produces harmful emissions.
While polluted air poses risk to everyone, the American Lung Association acknowledged that disparities exist when it comes to the effect of air pollution.
"The burden of air pollution is not evenly shared. Poorer people and some racial and ethnic groups are among those who often face higher exposure to pollutants and who may experience greater responses to such pollution," the organization said.