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Living With Climate Change: Even low levels of pollution are killing older people, expansive research finds

Senior citizens who breathe in even low levels of pollution from industry, traffic, wildfires and other sources face greater odds of dying earlier as a result, and incremental changes in allowable emissions could save lives, an in-depth study of Medicare recipients shows.

The study, which researchers argue is the first of its kind, was released Wednesday. It tracked some 68.5 million people over four years, and extended to people who live in rural areas and towns with little industry.

Findings suggest that if the federal rules for allowable levels of fine soot had been even slightly more stringent, some 143,000 deaths could have been prevented over the course of a decade. The report’s timing is significant, as the Environmental Protection Agency is mulling tougher pollution regulations right now.

Read: Climate change is ‘greatest threat’ to global public health, say 200 medical journals

And: Study suggests even short-term exposure to air pollution hurts older men’s thinking and memory

In fact, the EPA helped fund the “rigorous” peer-reviewed study’s research, conducted by the Health Effects Institute. Auto makers and fossil fuel CL00, +1.51% companies also paid for the study.

The researchers reported a 6% to 8% increased risk of mortality for each 10-micrograms-per-cubic-meter increase in fine particulate matter across several different analyses of ambient air. The report reveals risk at exposure levels below the current national standard of 12 micrograms.

Related: Tiniest pollution particles pack major risk: Childhood asthma, poor-air deaths ignored for too long, studies say

Air pollution has long been viewed as a significant contributor to the global burden of disease, including to risks of heart disease, diabetes, asthma and respiratory disease. According to HEI’s recent Global Burden of Disease – Major Air Pollution Sources report, a major source of fine-particle soot comes from the burning
of fossil fuels, accounting for more than 1 million deaths globally.

Read: Exxon vows to cut emissions from operations to ‘net zero’ — but won’t exit fossil fuels anytime soon

Although air pollution concentrations have been declining over the past few decades in many higher-income countries, several studies published in the past decade have reported greater associations between risk of mortality and long-term exposures to relatively low concentrations to these particles, the report shows.

Health concerns around pollution tend to concentrate on the youngest and oldest, and thus most vulnerable, citizens. A 9-year-old London girl who died in 2013 after an asthma attack is thought to be the first person in the world to have air pollution listed as a cause of death, when that ruling emerged in 2020.

What the COVID shutdown proved

Other recent studies have linked fine-particle pollution to higher rates of death from COVID-19, with Black and other communities of color particularly at risk because they are more likely to be located near highways, power plants and other industrial facilities.

European researchers, for instance, exploited the economic shutdown from COVID-19 to measure whether less polluting activity made a difference in air quality.

They argue, yes, strict COVID-19 lockdown policies such as workplace closures in European cities reduced levels of air pollution and the number of associated deaths, according to estimates published in Nature’s Scientific Reports.

Government measures for COVID-19 such as school and workplace closure, canceling public events, and stay-at-home requirements had the strongest effect on reducing nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution levels, these researchers said. This is linked to the reduction in road transport and local mobility which is known to be a contributor to NO2 air pollution. 

Is your city at risk of ‘Death by Dirty Diesel’

Another group, the nonprofit Clean Air Task Force, has newly issued a U.S.-focused digital tool tracking deaths and economic impact believed linked to diesel fuel. The group calls the map “Death by Dirty Diesel” and it shows mostly California municipalities claiming the top spots joined by Pittsburgh and New Orleans. Diesel powers some cars, but mostly commercial trucks over the nation’s roads. Diesel also impacts underserved economic areas to a greater degree, because these locations tended to be torn up decades ago for major streets, highways and elevated interstates.

The national data is pretty staggering, CATF says, with more than 8,000 deaths, 3,700 heart attacks, hundreds of thousands of other respiratory ailments, and nearly $1 trillion in economic damages projected for 2023 from diesel alone — according to EPA data.

The trucking industry, like the U.S. passenger vehicle market, is exploring greater use of electric batteries, hydrogen fuel-cells and other means to replace diesel. CATF and others believe this push will have to be funded with public and private investment. AMZN, -1.34% and Walmart WMT, -1.30%, whose fast-delivery promises keep their trucks rolling every day, all day, have invested in EVs. Amazon took a large stake in Rivian RIVN, +1.67%, one of last year’s largest IPOs, for instance. Walmart has entered an agreement to reserve 5,000 electric-powered vans from General Motors’ GM, +0.27% BrightDrop subsidiary to support the retailer’s growing e-commerce delivery operations.

Don’t miss: The ‘dirty’ U.S. economy bounced back faster than overall growth last year — here’s how

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