Better US air quality since 1990 offers health benefits

From Brigham Young University: Breathing better, living longer

Arden Pope’s students know him as an excellent economics teacher, but some would be surprised to learn that, thanks to him, the air they breathe today is cleaner than the first breath they ever took.

In fact, a new study by this BYU professor concludes that improvements in U.S. air quality since 1990 have sparked a 35 percent reduction in deaths and disability specifically attributable to air pollution. Pope was a member of a large research team who co-authored the study for the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“Some of the best news relative to the air pollution research over the last few years is the evidence that our reducing air pollution in the United States has resulted in measurable improvements in life expectancy and public health,” said Pope.

It’s no coincidence that 1990 is a point of reference in air quality research. In the late 80s, a steel mill in Utah Valley shut down for one year due to a labor strike. Pope spotted a research opportunity that found big problems caused by small particles floating in the air. Known as “particulate matter,” this kind of pollution is produced by combustion of car engines, power plants and steel mills.

Pope and other scholars found in successive studies that dirty air impacted hospital admissions, mortality rates, and cardiovascular disease – including the risk of heart attacks.

“One of the biggest surprises of this research was that air pollution contributed to cardiovascular disease and not just respiratory disease,” Pope said. “In fact, we’re learning that air pollution not only impacts our lungs but it impacts our heart and our brain.”

The research caught the attention of scientists and regulators, which led to automobile emissions standards and cleaner manufacturing processes.

Now a world-renowned expert on the topic, Pope was asked this year to evaluate the credibility of an intriguing study on China’s air quality by scientists at MIT, Peking University, Tsinghua University and Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Editors of the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science invited Pope to write a commentary that accompanied a research paper on China’s Huai River policy.

The Huai River runs west to east and is regarded as the geographical dividing line between northern and southern China. In winter, the Chinese government provides free coal to residents north of the river to heat their homes.

In denying coal to people who live south of the river, the Chinese government actually did them a favor. The researchers found that air pollution is 55 percent lower on the south side. They also estimated that life expectancy was five years lower on the north side because of the extra air pollution.

“While their results tend to be a bit higher than what we’d expect based on the rest of the literature, it’s still roughly consistent with what we would expect based on the other studies that we’ve been doing,” Pope said.

For a more in-depth look at Professor Pope’s career, read this fascinating profile from BYU Magazine.

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Related: Shocker: Global warming may simply be an artifact of clean air laws

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21 Responses to Better US air quality since 1990 offers health benefits

  1. Bloke down the pub says:

    From the time when environmentalists still did things in order to improve the environment, rather than to keep the gravy train rolling.

  2. geran says:

    Bloke down the pub says:
    September 19, 2013 at 3:39 am
    From the time when environmentalists still did things in order to improve the environment, rather than to keep the gravy train rolling.
    >>>>>>>

    Increased CO2 levels are obviously cleaning up the atmosphere!

    I would offer to do some “part-time” research on that for, say $180,000/yr….

  3. Wealthy nations have the cleanest environments.

    Wealth is built from use of the energy tied up in fossil fuels.

    At any given population level the cleanest environment will be where fossil fuels have generated most wealth shared by the largest proportion of the population.

    Furthermore the wealthiest and cleanest societies voluntarily reduce breeding rates to below replacement level.

    In effect, freely available and cheap fossil fuel use is the fastest way to arrive at clean environments and sustainable population levels.

    As usual the pessimists have got it wrong.

  4. Bob Greene says:

    Nice, feel good press release on an assertion that has no basis in other than a casual correlation. I believe the authors would be hard pressed to find one diagnosis for cardiovascular disease or diminished mental capacity from PM2.5. I could just as well say that the increased longevity since 1990 are attributed to the launch of the Hubble telescope, the invasion of Kuwait or, more likely but not proven, a decrease in adult smoking rate from 25.5% (1990) to 19.3% (2010). I have as much proof as they do.
    Is 1990 a magic date since it marks the passage of the Clean Air Act Amendments? Any benefits didn’t start for years after the passage of the act. I guarantee that everyone didn’t run out and install new pollution control equipment in 1990. Also, PM10, not PM2.5 was the biggie. They were making similar claims for the reduction of PM10.
    Mortality in the use has decreased from 1860.1 per 100,000 to 798.7 per 100,000 since 1935 according to the CDC. The heart attack death rate was fairly flat between 1950 and 1980 then started decreasing. So, it is difficult to make a convincing argument that it is the decrease in fine particulate matter. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db88.pdf
    Is this the secrete source EPA is using to for it’s PM2.5 excesses?

  5. Katherine says:

    The Huai River runs west to east and is regarded as the geographical dividing line between northern and southern China. In winter, the Chinese government provides free coal to residents north of the river to heat their homes.

    In denying coal to people who live south of the river, the Chinese government actually did them a favor. The researchers found that air pollution is 55 percent lower on the south side. They also estimated that life expectancy was five years lower on the north side because of the extra air pollution.

    Now I wonder how many more people would have died of cold if they hadn’t had that coal to heat their homes? What’s a shorter life expectancy vs not dying of hypothermia that winter? If the Chinese government had to distribute free coal, the recipients obviously couldn’t afford more expensive heating options.

  6. George says:

    The thing that strikes me about this article is that the research and emissions control requirements came much earlier than 1990. The issue of particulate emissions was a big subject in the early 1960′s, and emission controls were being installed across all industries by 1970. Catalytic converters were required on all automobiles and light trucks by the 1975 model year. 1990 was way after the fact.

  7. kadaka (KD Knoebel) says:

    There’s an easy check for this work.

    Did the health of smokers improve when cigarettes shifted from “raw” to filtered? That would be a major source of particulate matter. In the early 1990′s, my parents were still smoking unfiltered Pall Malls, but that was one of the last unfiltered brands.

    Of course, with regards to this research, given the historically large amounts of smokers in the population, that were exposed to much less particulate emissions due to the increased use of filters in this period, how did this study separate out this possible “healthier smoker” effect from their results showing health benefits for the entire US?

    After reading the abstract, as far as I can get on this side of the paywall, it looks like they didn’t.

  8. CodeTech says:

    George, you wrote exactly what I was about to.
    Heck, the the 70s we were still dumping tetraethyl lead into our gasoline, which has demonstrably hazardous effects on the human body.

    Catalytic converters, EGR, air pumps, and downsizing cars in general did more to improve our air quality than anything before or since. Since automobile use increased so gradually during the 20th century I doubt anyone really noticed the problem until it was a big problem.

    Sounds to me like someone is patting themselves on the back for work done decades earlier. As long as Asia is sending a brown cloud across the Pacific each and every day, not much that we do in North America can possibly make any difference any more. We’re pretty much at the “saturation point” for cleaning up the air.

  9. higley7 says:

    China simply needs to catch up on their stack gas scrubbing, leaving the CO2 alone.

    And, none of these results validate the EPA’s current Draconian decreases in allowed released pollution. They have absolutely no data to show that making the restrictions stronger than they are already will have any affect on human health or the environment.

    When sea air has more mercury than the EPA allows, they have become radically anal retentive and ignored the very real “the toxicity’s in the dose.”

  10. Gary Pearse says:

    So maybe the alarmist geoengineering idea of filling the atmosphere with an aerosol parasol needs further study. Well no, I guess if it’s good for the planet and kills off people it should be a go (sarc off).

  11. Bruce Cobb says:

    Air pollution can be bad for your health. Yeah, we knew that. Locating a steel mill in a valley probably isn’t the best idea then. All you need is a temperature inversion, and all that pollution gets trapped. China has a lot of soft coal, which is dirtier, plus China’s air quality standards are lower than ours (though they are improving).

  12. commieBob says:

    Bob Greene says:
    September 19, 2013 at 4:06 am

    Nice, feel good press release on an assertion that has no basis in other than a casual correlation.

    1 – We have known for rather a long time that particulates are not good for your heart. The results of this study are unsurprising and uncontroversial. http://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/air-pollution-heart-health.htm
    2 – “Is this the secrete source EPA is using to for it’s PM2.5 excesses?” Just because something survives your spell-checker …

  13. GoneWithTheWind says:

    Much of the early work in cleaning up the environment was practical, easy and beneficial. The old rule that it takes 20% of the effort to accomplish 80% of the goal. What is left is that last 20% (in some cases 10% or even 1%) that is going to take 80% effort/money for a decreasing benefit. The problem the environmental movement has is that they succeeded and then morphed into a fascist movement that is now intent on punishing people and society and not concerned with beneficial changes anymore. A hard core environmentalist from the 60′s would today be a moderate to conservative and wouldn’t be welcome in the angry activist movement of today.

  14. Bob Greene says:

    @commieBob:
    1-Yep, particulate isn’t good for you. Now, find medical diagnoses of someone having cardiovascular problems from particulate. Atmospheric particulate comes from all sorts of sources: man-made combustion (boilers, ic engines, home heating, back yard barbecues); living organisms, dust storms, you name it. Particulate reduction due to environmental rules was built to reduce it from boilers, ic engines, incinerators and certain other industrial sources. So, what you need to do is show me the diagnoses of cardiovascular disease and deaths from those sources as opposed to all sources of PM2.5. Is PM2.5 from a natural forest fire less dangerous than from a wood fired industrial boiler? Lisa Jackson said that PM2.5 in any amount form any source is lethal. So, why aren’t we all dropping dead, because we have all been exposed to PM2.5 both natural and manmade.

    Your link says particulate affects childhood asthma. Probably does, but particulate levels in the US have decreased for several decades, childhood asthma has increased over the same period. It seems that we have a new theory on the increased rate of childhood asthma every 2-3 years.

    2. Yep, I noticed I mispelled “secret”.

    Back in the 80′s and with the CAAA of 1990, reducing total particulate (total PM and PM10) was the ticket to greater health benefits. The regulations resulted in lower particulate and cleaner air. Problem solved? Well, no, because we got the same recycled arguments for PM2.5. Most new air permits have PM2.5 limits and have testing requirements as a data gathering tool, because we are writing regulations without quantifying how much we are regulating.

    This article doesn’t have a basis in science because the authors cannot separate any number of causes for cardiovascular diseases and lung problems. They hopped on a downward trend and claimed their pet was the source of this.

    Steve Millow on Junkscience puts it best: Show me the bodies.

  15. old engineer says:

    Sounds to me like some Johnny-come-lately taking credit where no credit is due. In the U.S. control of PM was one the first things the (then new) EPA started on in early ’70′s. By 1990 it was largely complete.

    Conclusions from all epidemiological studies such as the China study are tenuous. There may be correlations, but causation is difficult to prove. And we all know that correlation does not demonstrate causation.

  16. guidoLaMoto says:

    Air pollution doesn’t cause lung disease, it aggravates it. How did they control for confounding factors like lower incidence of smoking in the general population, development of new drugs like long acting beta-agonists, inhaled corticosteroids, new vagolytics, statins, new insulin preps to treat DM, a major risk factor for CAD, improved diagnostic techiniques for catching CAD earlier, etc etc all developed since late 1980s? Life expectancy is increasing everywhere, not just in places with less air pollution.

  17. ferd berple says:

    I recall a study years ago that was a real eye opener:

    country dweller, non-smoker 0% lung cancer
    country dweller, non-smoker 0.7% lung cancer
    city dweller, non smoker 0.7% lung cancer
    city dweller, smoker – 7% lung cancer

  18. ferd berple says:

    if the northern chinese did not use coal to stay alive in the winter, what would they use? would they cut down all the forests until the countryside was a desert? is wood smoke healthy? would the desert dust and cold be better for their health than warmth and coal smog?

    the problem with most studies like this is that they assume some magical solution with zero cost and zero pollution will replace the status quo. in this case that the sun will magically move north.

    no process is 100% efficient. waste products are an inevitable result of action. no organism, no plant, no manufacturing plant, no vehicle can escape this. all that we can really do is to select those processes such that they deliver the most benefit with waste products that cause the least harm for the least cost.

    the richer the society, the cleaner the process they can afford. natural gas vehicles are much cleaner than diesel. So why are not all the commercial trucks and transit buses required to switch? Why do we allow diesel trucks and buses in cities?

  19. ferd berple says:

    correction:
    I recall a study years ago that was a real eye opener:

    country dweller, non-smoker 0% lung cancer
    country dweller, smoker 0.7% lung cancer
    city dweller, non smoker 0.7% lung cancer
    city dweller, smoker – 7% lung cancer

  20. Below is two maps, one of which is of the prevalence of particulates worldwide, and the other is of the prevalence of lung, trachea, and bronchus cancers. The two do not overlap geographically at all. The areas of the world with the least particulates have the higher lung cancer rates; and the areas with the highest particulates have the lowest lung cancer rates. This is something a high school kid could look up. It would take a graduate degree in public health to find a correlation where there is none. See links below.

    World map of atmospheric particulates
    http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/health-sapping.html

    lung, trachea, brochus cancer map
    http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Trachea,_bronchus,_lung_cancers_world_map_-_Death_-_WHO2004.svg

  21. SLEcoman says:

    According to the CDC, asthma incidence rates in the US:

    1980 = 3.14%
    1985 = 3.66%
    1990 = 4.19%
    1995 = 5.52%
    2001 = 7.3%
    2003 = 6.9%
    2008 = 7.8%
    2010 = 8.4%

    Does this data appear to show that decreasing air pollution increases asthma incidence rates? yes. But does that make any sense? This illustrates the problem with “corrolation as proof of causation” ‘science’.

    To be fair, the CDC says its method of surveying for asthma incidence rates changed so 2001 and later data cannot be compared with survey data from 1980 -1995. But looking at 1980 – 1995 and 2001-2010 separately, we still see upward trends in asthma rates during both time periods as US emissions criteria or precursors to criteria pollutants reduced.

    The problem with the type of analysis performed by Mr. Pope as a means to justify public policy are discussed in “Quack Policy – Abusing Science in the Cause of Paternalism” released 21-Aug-2013 by the Institute for Economic Analysis.
    http://www.iea.org.uk/publications/research/quack-policy-%E2%80%93-abusing-science-in-the-cause-of-paternalism

    In

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