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Good news regarding air pollution in the U.S.

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Thanks to one researcher's persistence, we are now breathing cleaner air.

A new analysis shows we are breathing cleaner air. As a result, we are also living longer, thanks to less air pollution.

According to newer statistics, cleaner air is responsible for 35 percent fewer deaths compared to the 1990s. The study, co-authored by Arden Pope of Brigham Young University and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association has ..."resulted in measurable improvements in life expectancy and public health,” said Pope in a press release.

An uphill battle

Pope found an opportunity for his studies on air pollution when a steel mill in Utah Valley shut down for one year due to a labor strike in the 1980s. He began to investigate levels of particulate matter in the air that not only lead to respiratory ailments, but surprisingly, also heart disease.

“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 result of his earlier study led to cleaner manufacturing processes and lower automobile emission standards - but not before Pope's conclusions were refuted.

Geneva Steel was one of Utah County’s largest employers basically went after Pope, challenging the effects of air pollution that the company said met with Federal standards.

But at the time scientists were interested in ozone, not fine particulate matter that is microscopic.

Local residents began writing letters to BYU, defending Geneva Steel. One such example includes: “I personally believe that Pope’s attack on Geneva was brought about by a sole desire for fame and glory” and “Is he practicing bad science? Or is it possible that he is so biased and prejudiced that he can’t produce an accurate and honest report?”

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Next, Geneva steel hired epidemiologist Steven Lamm of Georgetown’s School of Medicine to review Pope’s study. Pope had gathered information about pediatric hospital admissions for respiratory complaints, comparing them to when the mill was operating and when it was closed down. Indeed, kids were sicker when the mill was operating. He submitted his observational findings to the American Journal of Public Health.

Georgetown's Lamm then blamed the hospital admissions on an outbreak of a "respiratory virus", calling Pope's work an "ecological fallacy".

Pope continued his studies, methodically and scientifically; held a press conference and eventually the dust settled, leading to a change of air quality focus.We know more about fine particulate matter than we did a decade ago and how it harms us.

Now Pope is considered an expert on air quality.

The new study

The JAMA study, published August 14, 2013, showed "US life expectancy for both sexes combined increased from 75.2 years in 1990 to 78.2 years in 2010," the authors wrote.

Pope says one of the reasons we are living longer is reductions in air pollution that are "significant" in the U.S.

There are still concerns about the air we breathe though. The biggest impacts on air pollution continue in places like India and China where people are exposed to very high levels of air pollution, Pope says.

Pope says "some of the best news" regarding air pollution is that reducing levels has improved public health and life expectancy significantly. That is good news for everyone and great news for future generations.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons