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Air pollution in the United States has been getting better over the past 40 years or so. While historical data show this to be generally true, there are still trouble spots. Nationwide, and worldwide, air pollution continues to cost trillions of dollars a year. Most of our pollution comes from transportation, manufacturing, and power generation. This post summarizes key facts about the health and environmental costs of air pollution as well as where it comes from.

Leading Causes of Air Pollution

When many people think of the sources of air pollution, they think of cars and factories.  This is mostly accurate for things like smog and particulates. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, transportation accounts for 27% of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. Manufacturing accounts for a bit more of the emissions. The leader, though, is electricity generation, which accounts for 29% of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.

US Population Is Living With cleaner Air:

Despite seasonal issues like winter smog in Denver and local challenges, like ozone pollution near fracking sites, the nation’s air is getting cleaner. The State of the Air 2017 indicates a huge drop in the number of Americans living in areas with unhealthy levels of pollution. While 38.9% of Americans live in counties with unhealthy levels of ozone or particulate pollution that number is way down from 2014-2015.

Poverty and Air Pollution

According to State of the Air 2017, poor people are probably the most exposed to particulate air pollution and ozone. In their nationwide review of exposure to ozone, average daily exposure to particulates, and exposure to spikes in particulate levels, the American Lung Association found that 17.7 million people living below the federal poverty level were in counties that failed all three tests. This means a large fraction of the nation’s poor are at increased risk of a variety of health problems.

Air Pollution Leads to Premature Births:

Pregnant women who are exposed to high air pollution can give birth prematurely. The excess medical costs of a premature birth are the same whether the cause is air pollution or something else, but a study published in Science Daily revealed at estimated annual cost of $4.33 billion strictly from premature births linked with air pollution.

Diseases Linked to Air Pollution

Respiratory illnesses are obviously caused by or aggravated by, air pollution. Research has pointed to many additional disease risks associated with chronic exposure to air pollution. Studies abstracted at Science Daily have linked air pollution to heart disease, diabetes, and lung diseases as well. Bronchitis, lung disease, and kidney disease may also be caused by chronic exposure to different air pollutants.

Nanoparticles Cause Autoimmune Diseases

A study mentioned by Science Daily raises the possibility that nanoparticles in the air may increase the risk of rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases. Nanoparticles are tiny motes of solid matter between 1 and 100 nanometers in diameter, thousands of times smaller than the diameter of a human hair in other words.

Early Deaths Due to Air Pollution Cost $225 Billion a Year

The World Bank publishes a vast array or statistics on the costs of air pollution in specific countries, regionally, and for the globe. They estimate that lost labor from early deaths cost the global economy $225 billion in 2013. 

Exposure to Air Pollution Can Impair Brain Development

Long-term exposure to air pollution can be especially bad for children. A study in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that children in Boston who were regularly exposed to small carbon particles, known as “black carbon,” performed less well on standardized tests than children who

Indoor Air Pollution is Common

In the developing world, cooking over wood or animal dung dirties indoor air. In developed nations, chemicals in the air produce “Sick Building Syndrome”. While the causes of that problem are probably diverse, indoor ozone pollution is likely a major contributor. An article in Scientific American found that indoor ozone pollution is widespread and potentially as hazardous as it is outside. The reason? We tend to spend far more time inside than outside.

Air Pollution Probably Kills More People Than War and Famine

The number of people killed each year by air pollution, specifically by diseases caused by exposure to air pollution, can only be estimated. The World Bank indicates that between 3 million and 5 million people die each year because of air pollution.

Air Pollution is a Significant Health Risk in Developing Countries

In low- and middle-income countries like India and China, 9 out of 10 people regularly suffer from exposure to dangerous air pollution. Those people are at higher risk of the many health issues described below.

The Economic Impact of Lost Productivity

When air pollution makes people too sick to work, they may lose income, but the economy suffers as well. Globally, air pollution costs an estimated $5 trillion a year, according to calculations from the World Bank. In developing countries like India and Nigeria, air pollution results in lost income equal to about 1% of the gross domestic product in those countries.

Many Americans Experience Terrible Air Quality

In the State of the Air 2017 report from the American Lung Association, we are told that 4 in 10 Americans live in counties where the air is unhealthy, at least some of the time. That number is the quantity exposed to unhealthy ozone or particulate levels in particular.

US Air Quality is Improving

The American Lung Association reports that the air is getting better, compared with the years 2012 to 2014. During that period 166 million people lived in areas where the air was sometimes unhealthy due to either ozone or particulates. That number dropped to 125 million in 2015 and 2016, the years covered in the 2015 report.

Global Air Quality is Declining

While things are getting better for most people in the US and in other wealthy countries, overall air quality has declined. The World Health Organization reports that 98% of people in cities with populations over 100,000 live in places that fall short of air quality standards. That number is for low-income and middle-income countries like China and Nigeria.