air pollution and DEATH

Emily Davis, Attorney, Clean Air Project, Washington, D.C.

A recent report from the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 7 million people died as a result of air pollution in 2012. 

Unfortunately, this updated science indicates that air pollution problems worldwide are even worse than we previously thought.  In 2012, over 400 experts worldwide examined the science on air pollution and concluded  that outdoor air pollution contributed to “over 3.2 million premature deaths worldwide” in 2010 alone.  2008 estimates placed the number at approximately 1.3 million annual deaths.

So why are these numbers increasing? One reason is that the science on air pollution continues to improve. The report’s new estimates “are not only based on more knowledge about the diseases caused by air pollution, but also upon better assessment of human exposure to air pollutants through the use of improved measurements and technology. This has enabled scientists to make a more detailed analysis of health risks from a wider demographic spread.”

For example, the data now “reveal[s] a stronger link between both indoor and outdoor air pollution exposure and cardiovascular diseases, such as strokes and ischaemic heart disease, as well as between air pollution and cancer. This is in addition to air pollution’s role in the development of respiratory diseases, including acute respiratory infections and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases.”

If there’s one thing scientists and epidemiologists are sure of, it’s that “air pollution is now the world’s largest single environmental health risk” – it kills millions of people every year, and each year we’re learning more about its dangers.

This scientific consensus stands as a resounding rebuke to Congressional Republicans, who have attempted to question the causal link between air pollution and mortality in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The Clean Air Act requires that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) base national air quality standards  on health and scientific factors alone when determining what amounts of air pollution are harmful for humans to breathe. So, Congressional Republicans have tried to undermine the science behind these standards in an attempt to undermine the standards themselves. The WHO's report makes these attempts all the more outrageous.

Among these attempts, Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology committee, claims the science supporting EPA’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) is somehow “secret science.” In reality, scientists used confidential patient data to conduct important medical research on the health impacts of air pollution. Chairman Smith also claims that the science on air pollution has not been adequately reviewed. This too is incorrect – the studies underlying EPA’s standards have been extensively reviewed by independent authorities. 

EPA’s analyses, just like the WHO’s, show that the more we learn about air pollution, the more we learn just how dangerous it is to our health. No amount of hearings, subpoenas, or ad hominem attacks can change that. 

The international scientific community has now concluded that “[t]he risks from air pollution are now far greater than previously thought or understood” - 1 in 8 deaths worldwide are the result of air pollution exposure. We can do much more nationally, and internationally, to clean up this deadly pollution and reduce millions of deaths each year. And EPA is working to do just that. Right now, EPA is in the process of updating standards for smog pollution that have the potential to save thousands of lives each year. 

It's time for Congressional Republicans to stop ignoring the science and work with EPA to protect our health from the dangers of air pollution - millions of people stand to benefit if they do.

Photo Credit: Air Pollution Deaths/shutterstock