Air Pollution Kills More People Than Smoking

March 15, 2019

And as usual, it’s the communities that are least responsible for it that suffer the most.

Air pollution is a particularly covert killer. Sometimes smog burns our throats and sears our eyes, but just as often it enters the body unnoticed; a deep breath carries invisible gases and fine particles into the lungs where they hit the bloodstream and wreak havoc on our cardiovascular, circulatory, and respiratory systems.

Air pollution has well-documented links to asthma, lung and heart diseases, birth defects, and a slew of other negative health outcomes. And now a new study, published this week in the European Heart Journal, has found that it also kills twice as many people as previously thought—surpassing even smoking-related deaths.

The study, which combined air pollution exposure data and mortality data to model the risk of death, found that tiny particles of pollution known as PM2.5, kicked up into the atmosphere mainly by the burning of fossil fuels and biomass, agriculture, and industrial operations, are responsible for 8.79 million early deaths every year—some 1.5 million more deaths per year than tobacco.

Researchers have known for decades that exposure to air pollution—and thus its myriad health effects—is not equally distributed. In the United States and abroad, minorities and low-income communities face significantly higher levels of air pollution than whites and wealthier communities. But another new study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences expanded on that well-known disparity, showing that, while the consumer habits of white Americans were more responsible for causing air pollution, black and hispanic communities were more likely to suffer the consequences.

The authors quantified this inequality by tracking pollution levels, exposure rates, and sources of pollution in various regions of the country, and then looking at consumption rates and consumer spending on goods and services that drive those sources of pollution. (Though fossil fuels and industrial operations may be the primary source of harmful pollutants, those operations are driven in large part by consumer demand.)

The research is just the latest addition to a mounting pile of evidence that those least responsible for—and least capable of dealing with—environmental issues and disasters are often the most affected.

1. Air Pollution

Research has found that race, rather than poverty levels, is the strongest predictor of exposure to toxic air pollution. The Environmental Protection Agency, for example, has found that black Americans—regardless of wealth—are exposed to more PM 2.5 than white Americans. One study from 2017 found that race was the strongest predictor of exposure to nitrogen dioxide—an air pollutant emitted by cars, trucks, and power plants.

The same study showed that, while nitrogen dioxide exposure across the U.S. fell overall in the decade between 2000 and 2010, black and Hispanic communities still experienced 37 percent higher exposures than whites in 2010, and rates for them had fallen only 3 percent from a decade before.

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