Study: Cleaning air could save lives

Sarah Thamer

Removing air pollutants can prevent disease and improve health in any location, even if the air is already relatively clean, according to a study released last week
 
A team of environmental engineering and public health researchers, which included a University of Minnesota associate professor, found that improving air quality could prevent millions of premature pollution-related deaths worldwide each year.  As many as 2.1 million deaths could be prevented  if countries met World Health
Organization guidelines — even by implementing them in areas with generally high air quality.
 
Joshua Apte, co-author of the study and assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said other publications have researched improvements in health for individual populations, like countries or cities, rather than global health.
 
“What is missing is a tool that can let you look forward for the whole world and see how improvements in air quality could lead to improvements in public health,” Apte said.
 
In different regions worldwide, researchers compared levels of pollutants with causes of death to find where pollution-related deaths were most common, he said.
 
Generated electricity, fossil fuels and motor vehicle emissions are some of the main sources of poor air quality around the world, he said, although sources of pollution also vary by location.
 
Improving air quality in locations at the clean end of the spectrum can also have a large impact on improving public health, Marshall said, which was something he was surprised to learn. 
 
Frank Kohlasch, manager of air assessment at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, said exposure to pollutant particles causes two types of primary health complications — cardiovascular and respiratory problems.
 
“People now recognize that there are health effects to our heart and cardiovascular diseases, not just lung diseases,” Marshall said.
 
Minnesota’s air is generally very clean, Kohlasch said. According to a report the MPCA gave to the state Legislature earlier this year, air quality in the state has improved due to better pollution control technology and emissions reductions programs. 
 
But air pollution still impacts public health in Minnesota. Health effects attributed to air pollution cost about $30 billion each year, according to the report.
 
Marshall said there are still health benefits that can be attained beyond what groups like the WHO or the Environmental Protection Agency recommend. Tightening pollution standards and restricting heavy-duty vehicles can improve air quality, Apte said.