Danger in the air for older Americans

Al Brandenburg Maricopa
Al Brandenburg

Here in Arizona, we are all exposed to desert dust every time the wind blows. This can lead to lung problems such as Valley Fever (a fungal infection) and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Older Americans who regularly breathe even low levels of pollution from smokestacks, automobile exhaust, wildfires and other sources face a greater chance of dying early, according to a recent study by researchers at the Health Effects Institute. The group, funded by the Environmental Protection Agency as well as automakers and fossil fuel companies, examined health data from 68.5 million Medicare recipients across the United States.

Researchers found if the federal rules for allowable levels of fine soot had been slightly lower, as many as 143,000 deaths could have been prevented over the last decade.

At the outset of the pandemic, when lockdowns were widespread, places that had been saturated with pollution suddenly cleared. The sky over Los Angeles turned blue. Snow-capped mountain ranges normally obscured by pollution glistened. The reason, of course, is hardly anyone was driving. It will be interesting to see if the push toward electric automobiles and solar and wind power will be as beneficial as promised.

Burning fossil fuels, whether in an automobile or home furnace or power plant, produces copious amounts of fine particulate pollution. Earlier research found exposure to particulate matter contributed to about 20,000 deaths a year in the United States. Other studies have linked fine soot pollution to higher rates of death from COVID-19.

A new study is the first in the United States to document deadly effects of the particulate matter known as PM 2.5 (so named because its width is 2.5 microns or less) on people who live in rural areas and towns with little industry.

The national standard for PM 2.5 is set at a yearly average of 12 micrograms per cubic meter, a level higher than that recommended by the World Health Organization. Researchers concluded that 143,257 deaths could have been prevented between 2006 and 2016 if the standard had been tightened to 10 micrograms.

And then there is the wildfires near cities that have become almost commonplace in the West. In 2021, the reach and intensity of the dangerous air pollution they produce was the worst on record.

Americans in populous, urban areas endured smoke for longer than previous years. Some places experienced unhealthy or hazardous air from wildfires for the first time.

By law, the EPA is required to review the latest science and update the soot standard every five years. The previous presidential administration opted not to strengthen the standard when it conducted the most recent review, despite growing scientific evidence of the harm to public health caused by particulate matter.

The current administration has increased regulation of emissions from power plants, factories and other industrial sites as part of its strategy to address environmental change. According to the EPA. the agency is expected to propose a draft rule by summer and to issue a final rule by the spring of 2023 to reduce air pollution from all sources.

Sources: AARP, medicinenet.com, arstechnica.com, consumer.healthday.com

Al Brandenburg is a member of Maricopa Community Advocates.

This column was first published in the April edition of InMaricopa magazine.