It’s easy to ignore what you can’t see, smell, taste, hear, or even touch. For many people, air pollution is largely a dismissed issue. Instead, it’s left to the hands of politicians and environmental groups to work out the logistics of trying to keep a lid on the rising surge of fine particles that we all breathe in every day.
Air pollution knows no boundaries or borders, and in this way it truly is a global dilemma. An offshoot of our industrialized economies and our love of automobiles, it is in a big way responsible for the incredible increase in cases of asthma in North America.
But it’s more than that. In a recent study — one in a long line of research trying to put some kind of stamp on the health consequences of air pollution — U.S. investigators have discovered a stark relationship that we all need to pay attention to. They found that when a city’s air pollution drops there is also an equally proportional drop in death rates as well.
To approach some mathematics for a moment, every time one microgram of soot per cubic meter decreases, deaths due to heart disease, lung cancer, and respiratory illness fall by three percent.
This means that the lives of 75,000 people are extended every year across the U.S. Researchers culled such information from six populated areas: 1) St. Louis, Missouri; 2) Steubenville, Ohio; 3) Watertown, Massachusetts; 4) Kingston and Harriman, Tennessee; 5) Portage, Wyocena, and Pardeeville, Wisconsin; and 6) Topeka, Kansas. This was no small study, either; it spanned more than two decades, from 1974 to 1998, and involved adults of all ages.
Scientists measured the soot in the air regularly over the years. They also tracked disease and death rates among more than 8,000 people. The pollution comes courtesy of fossil fuel burning and extremely hot industrial processes.
In their study, the researchers provided a good helping of proof that pollution is decreasing in the U.S. from where it was in the 1970s and 1980s, which is important because governments deal only with firm proof that something works before bothering to spend any money on it. In this case, it would be requirements and perhaps grants for new pollution-sparing technology for the auto and manufacturing industries.
Researchers say the message is clear: if we keep lowering air pollution, we will literally save more and more lives. Over in Steubenville, Ohio, for instance, the level of soot fell five micrograms per cubic meter over the course of the study. Accompanying that was a 25% decrease in the risk of death. Therein lies evidence that the more cities clean up their act the more unlikely it will be that its citizens will die early from chronic illness.