President Biden’s proposed infrastructure plan, which calls for huge investments in clean energy, public transportation and electric vehicles, would do much more than slow down devastating climate change. It would also protect the health of every American, especially young children and older adults, by reducing the harmful effects of the invisible air pollutants that are inhaled year after year.
Toxic substances such as fine dust, nitrogen dioxide and ozone are mainly created when fossil fuels are burned and enter the atmosphere via vehicle exhaust, Radiators and smoke from forest fires. Inhaling such pollutants can lead to physical harm that can last for years, if not lifelong, and even lead to death.
Air pollution has long been recognized as a threat to human health, which led to the passage of the Clean Air Act of 1963. According to the law, the air quality standards are regularly revised by the environmental protection agency. While these standards are intended to be based on the latest research, they are subject to economic and political pressures, sometimes to the detriment of public health.
Some of the most susceptible to illness and premature death related to air pollution include children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with pre-existing heart or lung conditions. People who live in poor areas, many of whom are near major arteries or near sources of industrial pollution, are most at risk.
Since 1990, the implementation of the amended Clean Air Act has reduced emissions of important air pollutants by around 50 percent. However, new research has shown that this decline is nowhere near enough to protect the most vulnerable Americans from the harmful effects of air pollution. A 17-year-old study, based on hospital records of more than 63 million older adults, showed that as early as 2016, as a group, they were exposed to serious health risks from inhaling pollutants, even at levels below current national and international levels Guidelines lie. For example, for every increase in long-term exposure to particulate matter in air (2.5 microns in diameter and invisible to the naked eye), 2,536 people were hospitalized with a stroke.
The report, published in Circulation magazine, found that years of inhalation of low levels of particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide and ozone “pose a significant risk to cardiovascular and respiratory health in the elderly United States.” Translation: The elderly are more likely to have heart attacks, strokes, atrial fibrillation, and pneumonia due to air pollution, resulting in thousands of additional hospitalizations each year.
A team of 12 scientists, led by Mahdieh Danesh Yazdi of the Harvard School of Public Health, based this finding on an analysis of air pollution and health outcomes for all Medicare fee-paying beneficiaries aged 65 and over who lived in the US between 2000 and 2016.
“Each increase in particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide and ozone concentrations was associated with thousands of additional admissions to hospitals each year,” the team reported. Dr. Yazdi, professor and research fellow in environmental health, said in an interview that “hundreds of thousands of lives could be saved” if American air quality was improved.
With half the population of the United States routinely exposed to concentrations of common pollutants that the study found dangerous, the researchers concluded that “this issue should be of great concern to clinicians and policymakers alike.”
By publishing the air quality and health outcomes data, the team hoped, Dr. Yazdi, to give people “some power” to improve air quality and better protect public health.
“Both clinicians and patients can be advocates and put pressure on officials to control sources of pollution and improve the air we all breathe,” she said. “Even if air pollution cannot be completely contained, we should strive to do better. Pollutants that are now considered safe can still have harmful effects and lead to poor results. “
The team also suggested that people pay attention to air quality where they live and do their best “to avoid harmful exposure over long periods of time”. There was a dramatic example of such avoidance last summer when forest fires burned across the state of California, forcing many people to stay indoors with the windows and doors closed to minimize inhalation of smoke-related pollutants.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “larger and more intense forest fires create the potential for increased smoke and chronic exposure in the United States, particularly in the west.”
But while such extreme short-lived cases of severe air pollution are easily identified, so-called background levels go unnoticed and unnoticed by the public, leaving millions of people vulnerable to the insidious damage they can cause. You can get a reasonable estimate of these values by checking the Air Quality Index in your area every day, and avoiding prolonged or heavy exertion outdoors on days when the air quality is poor.
An international research team reported last year that air pollution “is responsible for about 9 million deaths a year worldwide,” they wrote in Frontiers in Public Health. “The health of susceptible and sensitive people can be affected even on days with low pollution levels.”
Particulate matter contains tiny liquid or solid droplets that can be easily inhaled. In addition to damaging the lungs, these microscopic particles can enter the bloodstream and cause harmful effects elsewhere in the body, including the brain.
People over 75 in the new study were more likely to be hospitalized than those closer to 65, and whites were at higher risk of being admitted than blacks due to exposure to particulate matter. However, exposure to nitrogen dioxide, which is also a product of fossil fuel burning, has been shown to be more harmful for blacks than for whites.
In addition, the study population as a whole were at greatest risk of hospitalization at lower levels of air pollutants, the team reported.
Other studies have shown that even short-term exposure to low levels of pollutants can be dangerous for people with conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma. According to the United States’ Global Change Research Program, early life exposure to air pollution can lead to respiratory, cardiovascular, mental, and perinatal disorders.
Air pollution can also have indirect health effects due to its close relationship with climate change. Pollutants increase the amount of sunlight reaching and warming the earth, and warmer climates increase the spread and intensity of infectious diseases that can lead to epidemics
Given that most of the pollutants we breathe are released into the atmosphere from sources like industrial machines, power plants, internal combustion engines, and automobiles, efforts to switch from fossil fuels to clean energy sources like wind power and vehicles using electrical energy instead of gasoline and diesel can be have a major impact on air quality.