Sustainable America Blog

“Safe” Air Isn’t Safe Enough

Cars and trucks at a near standstill on a 9-land highway.

Photo: URBAN TEXTURES, © 1998 PhotoSpin, powerphotos.com. Via Flickr

A new study released this week shows that levels of air pollution that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deems safe may not be safe enough.

The study, conducted by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, found that long-term exposure to airborne fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) and ozone — even below current standards established by established by the EPA — increases the risk of premature death. Men, black people and low-income populations had higher risks than the national average.

The researchers estimated daily air pollution levels by ZIP code nationwide using a combination of methods. They then analyzed the impact of low levels of air pollution on 61 million seniors for years 2000 to 2012.

They found that increases of 10 micrograms per cubic meter of fine particulate matter and 10 parts per billion (PPB) in ozone increased premature deaths by 7.3% and 1.1% respectively. These results were consistent in areas that had levels of pollution below the EPA standards.

Cutting the level of fine particulate matter by 1 microgram per cubic meter below current standards could save 12,000 lives per year, according to the study.

Sources of fine particulate matter — which are particles of dust and soot 30 times smaller in diameter than a human hair — include vehicle exhaust and power plants. Particles from traffic were found to be more toxic.

“When you have a large study that shows that the current level of air pollution is toxic — I hope that’s something we can do something about,” Francesca Dominici, one of the study’s authors and a professor of biostatistics at Harvard, told the New York Times.

This study comes at a time when air pollution levels have been going down, but it shows that more needs to be done if we want to reduce deaths from pollution. In the current political climate, however, we can’t count on the EPA to make transformative changes in the near future. This is why now, more than ever, we need to make choices that support reducing fossil fuel consumption whenever possible. Here are some of the best ways to do that:

• Choose to drive or rent cleaner cars, like EVs, hybrids or natural gas vehicles.
>>Read more about alternative fuel vehicles<<

• Take public transportation, walk or bike instead of driving whenever possible.
>>How to get more biking in your life<<

• Limit unnecessary idling
>>Take our pledge to stop idling<<

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By the Numbers

Currently 50 million households suffer from food insecurity, meaning that family members cannot always meet their basic food needs.

10 million people a year could be fed through the recovery of just one-fifth of food waste.

Only 2% of food waste is composted or otherwise recycled—62% of paper is recycled.

Consumers throw out about 40% of the fresh and frozen fish they buy.

The U.S. produced 208 pounds of meat per person in 2009—60% more than Europe.

Low income commuters spend a much higher proportion of their wages on gas—8.6% versus 2.1% at $4 per gallon.

Food prices rose 35-40 percentage points between 2002–2008.

Americans consume 25% of the world’s produced oil, but our nation holds less than 3% of the world’s proven oil reserves.

The International Energy Agency says greenhouse gas emissions rose 3.2% last year, with a 9.3% increase in China offsetting declines in the US and EU.


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