Air pollution cause of 200,000 premature US deaths – study

Smoke is released into the sky at the ConocoPhillips oil refinery in San Pedro, California (Reuters/Bret Hartman)
Smoke is released into the sky at the ConocoPhillips oil refinery in San Pedro, California (Reuters/Bret Hartman)

Air pollution in major US cities is the largest cause of premature mortality, a new study has revealed. An average of 200,000 people have their lives cut short by about a decade every year because of continuous exposure to toxic fumes.

Researchers from MIT’s Laboratory for Aviation and the  Environment carried out a nationwide study, tracing ground-level  emissions and their effect on citizen mortality. The team of  investigators looked at sources such as car exhausts, industrial  smokestacks and commercial and residential heating and found that  an average of 200,000 people die prematurely each year because of  exposure.
Steven Barrett, an assistant professor of aeronautics and  astronautics at MIT, said the new research confirmed already  existing fears. He stressed that prolonged exposure to toxic  emissions could shorten people’s lives by up to a decade.   “In the past five to 10 years, the evidence linking air-pollution  exposure to risk of early death has really solidified and gained  scientific and political traction,” said Barrett, adding that  something must be done to mitigate the problem.
In the study sources of air pollution were divided into six  different categories: electric power generation, industry,  commercial and residential sources, road transportation, marine  transportation, and rail transportation. Data on each of the  categories was then fed into an air quality simulation program to  assess their impact on the atmosphere.
Out of all 50 states, California is the worst offender, with over  21,000 premature deaths mostly attributed to exposure to car  exhaust fumes and emissions from heating and cooking. Moreover,  the US Environmental Protection Agency says that more than 1  million southern Californians are at a greater risk of  contracting a respiratory disorder because they live within 300  meters of a highway.

  Transport biggest killer

The primary cause of premature death in the US was found to be  transport emissions, responsible for 53,000 of the 200,000  premature deaths. Fumes from electrical power generation followed  closely behind, claiming 52,000 lives annually. Early deaths from  industrial activities were found to be particularly prevalent in  the Midwest, as well as in Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Atlanta.
“It was surprising to me just how significant road  transportation was,” Barrett observed, “especially when  you imagine [that] coal-fired power stations are burning  relatively dirty fuel.”
Domestic emissions sources were also flagged as part of the  problem, with pollution from cooking and heating behind a large  number of premature deaths. Although they may seem harmless the  use of these appliances produces carbon dioxide which can cause  health problems after prolonged exposure.   “A public health burden of this magnitude clearly requires  significant policy attention, especially since technologies are  readily available to address a significant fraction of these  emissions,” Jonathan Levy, a professor of environmental  health at Boston University, commented to MIT.
The US Environmental Agency recently introduced new guidelines  that will require air pollution monitors to be installed on the  side of major highways in over 100 cities across the country.  However, fossil fuels still remain the principle source of US  power, accounting for 42 percent of the country’s electricity  production in 2011.




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