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Harvard SPH large-scale study links PM2.5 levels below EPA standards with higher death rates

A new study by researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that death rates among people over 65 are higher in zip codes with more fine particulate air pollution (PM2.5) than in those with lower levels of PM2.5. It is the first study to examine the effect of soot particles in the air in the entire population of a region, including rural areas.

The harmful effects from the particles were observed even in areas where concentrations were less than a third of the current standard set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (12 μg/m3 of annual average PM2.5, 35 μg/m3 daily). The open-access study is published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

Most of the country is either meeting the EPA standards now, or is expected to meet them in a few years as new power plant controls kick in. This study shows that it is not enough. We need to go after coal plants that still aren’t using scrubbers to clean their emissions, as well as other sources of particles like traffic and wood smoke.

—Joel Schwartz, professor of environmental epidemiology and senior author

Previous studies have linked both short- and long-term exposure to PM2.5 with increased mortality, through mechanisms such as heart disorders, increased blood pressure, and reduced lung function.

The researchers used satellite data to determine particle levels and temperatures in every zip code in New England. This allowed them to examine the effects of PM2.5 on locations far from monitoring stations, and to look at the effects of short-term exposures and annual average exposures simultaneously. They analyzed health data from everyone covered by Medicare in New England—2.4 million people—between 2003 and 2008 and followed them each year until they died.

They found that both short- and long-term PM2.5 exposure was significantly associated with higher death rates, even when restricted to zip codes and times with annual exposures below EPA standards. Short-term (two-day) exposure led to a 2.14% increase in mortality per 10 μg/m3 increase in PM2.5 concentration, and long-term (one-year) exposure led to a 7.52% increase in mortality for each 10 µg/m3 increase.

Particulate air pollution is like lead pollution, there is no evidence of a safe threshold even at levels far below current standards, including in the rural areas we investigated. We need to focus on strategies that lower exposure everywhere and all the time, and not just in locations or on days with high particulate levels.

—Joel Schwartz

First author of the study was Liuhua Shi, a doctoral student in the Department of Environmental Health.

This study was funded by NIEHS ES000002, and by EPA grant RD-83479801.

Resources

  • Liuhua Shi, Antonella Zanobetti, Itai Kloog, Brent A. Coull, Petros Koutrakis, Steven J. Melly, and Joel D. Schwartz (2015) “Low-Concentration PM2.5 and Mortality: Estimating Acute and Chronic Effects in a Population-Based Study,” Environmental Health Perspectives doi: 10.1289/ehp.1409111

Comments

HarveyD

Another environment (pollution) standard do be up-dated?

DaveD

I suppose Herman will be on here telling us we're all morons for even reading the study! LOL

HarveyD

Emissions for fossil fuels burning may be responsible for up to 50% of brain defects in our new born?

Autism may be one of them and is extremely costly and painful to affected people, families and societies.

We will soon discover that fossil fuel burning emissions is also responsible for many costly cancers, heart, brain and other associated diseases.

Our health a the health of our children and grand children, animals, plants etc justify the higher cost of going electric as soon as possible.

D

A funded study to produce a report at the limits of reproducibility but nevertheless provided the response desired by the funders. Perpetual job security and never ending regulation tha supposedly has no efficacy.

Previous generations were exposed to much heavier concentrations of PM 2.5.

A logical conclusion to be drawn from this nonsense is that no efforts at cleanup should be taken, as it doesn't help at all. So discontinue the regulations. that limit effluents.

Why don't I think this will ever happen, even though the efforts to date by the results of this study would indicate its total ineffectiveness?

HarveyD

@D...have you compared the autism (and other brain problems) and cancer rates of the pre-automobile generations with today's?

If you do, you may have your answer.

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