Can Air Pollution Kill?

May 10, 2012

The short answer is ‘yes,’ according to the American Lung Association. And new studies suggest air pollution can lead to cardiopulmonary diseases.

Ozone and particle pollution poses a greater risk to people with asthma, chronic bronchitis or emphysema and “can even kill’ them, says the A.L.A. in its annual State of the Air report. Particle pollution can shorten the lives of Americans with cardiovascular diseases and diabetes.

Ground-level ozone and other elements of smog are known to inflame breathing passages and irritate the eyes and nose. Fine particle air pollution from soot and other particulate matters are also known to increase the risk of cardiopulmonary diseases.


The 13th annual State of the Air report ranked areas of the U.S. by ozone pollution, short-term particle pollution and long-term particle pollution. Where are the cleanest cities of the United States?

The cleanest U.S. areas for ozone pollution were Ames-Boone, Iowa., Appleton-Oshkosh-Neenah, Wisc., and Bend-Princeville, Ore. For year-round particle pollution, Santa Fe-Espanola, N.M., Cheyenne, Wyo., and Prescott, Ariz., were the three cleanest areas. And for short-term particle pollution, Albuquerque, N.M., Alexandria, La., and Amarillo, Texas, took the top three spots. (See the complete list of cleanest U.S. cities.)

And the most polluted areas of the U.S.? Areas in California took the top five spots in each of the categories, the report shows.

Los Angeles-Long Beach-Riverside, Calif., was the worst for ozone pollution, third-worst for the year-round particle pollution and fourth-worst for short-term particle pollution. Rounding up the top five polluted areas were Visalia-Porterville, Bakersfield-Delano, Fresno-Madera, Hanford-Corcoran and Modesto, all in California. (See the full list.)


Even though California got slammed in terms of the number of cities that made the dirty air list, it was an East Coast city that took exception to what it called the Association’s inaccurate use of data and went so far as to compare the news to a “bogus” report.

In an editorial, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette chided the A.L.A. for using a single monitoring station to represent a widely disparate region.

Instead, it grossly and inaccurately lets the pollution readings from a single monitor, typically the one in Liberty Borough, not far from U.S. Steel’s Clairton Coke Works, represent the air quality of a disparate region….


People have a right to be incensed—and the lung association obliges every year. It issues a deceptively uniform picture of the region’s air that is clouded by data collected from one instrument. This is not advocacy, but fact pollution—and it’s almost criminal.

The Pittsburgh-New Castle area came in sixth-worst in the nation for both year-round and short-term particle pollution and ranked 20th on the list of areas with the worst ozone pollution.

Air Pollution Over the Himalayas as Seen From Aqua and Terra Satellites

Air Pollution Over the Himalayas as Seen From Aqua and Terra Satellites. (Courtesy Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC)

New Research

Air pollution is widely linked to pulmonary as well as respiratory irritation and inflammation, but recent studies show a strong link between air pollution and cardiovascular diseases.

During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Chinese authorities placed unprecedented restrictions on emissions in order to clean up the air for tourists and athletes. That led to a measurable decrease in air pollution during the Olympic Games and a subsequent return to previous levels.

Taking advantage of the opportunity, researchers recruited healthy, young adults and measured various biomarkers for heart problems, blood clots and stroke before, during and after the Games.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, shows that concentrations of the biomarkers associated cardiovascular problems clearly decreased during the Olympics and increased when air pollution returned to previous levels.

In a separate study, published in The Lancet, Belgian and Swiss researchers found that air pollution was responsible for 5% to 7% of all heart attacks at a population level. When taking an entire population into consideration, air pollution represents a higher risk of heart problems than cocaine use, physical assertion, anger, alcohol or even respiratory infections.

In State of the Air, the A.L.A. notes that even the worst offending areas have improved their air quality from previous years and attributes the improvements to the federal Clean Air Act.

The Clean Air Act, if it remains unchallenged, will prevent 230,000 deaths annually from particle pollution alone and save an estimated $2 trillion in costs associated with premature deaths, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.


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