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Even "Legal" Air Pollution Is Killing Older Americans

28 December 2017

The authors of the study stressed that they were unable to find evidence of safe levels of exposure ozone or PM2.5.

The study compared air pollution readings in areas where the entire U.S. Medicare population, which lives in more than 39,000 zip codes, to the 22 million U.S. residents who died during the time period.

Port Talbot pollution stock images.

They assessed daily air pollution exposures using prediction models that provided accurate estimates of PM2.5 and ozone for most of the U.S., including unmonitored areas.

Studies have shown that fine inhalable particles (PM2.5) and ozone - particularly 'warm-season ozone, ' which occurs from April to September - are linked with increased mortality rates.

Older adults are more likely to die on days when air pollution rises, even when contaminant levels are below the limit considered safe by USA regulators, a new study suggests.

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Although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regards long-term exposure to PM2.5 safe if it averages no more than 12 micrograms of particulate per cubic meter of air, researchers found that any increase in air pollution correlates with increased death.

The 24-hour standard is 35 μg/m3.

Among Medicaid-eligible (low income) recipients, the mortality increase linked with increased PM2.5 was three times higher than that of people not eligible for Medicaid.

While the study only found an association, the investigators found that for every tiny incremental increase in either particulate pollution or ozone levels, the daily death rate bumped up between roughly 0.5 and 1 percent. For example, an increase of just 1 µg/m3 in daily PM2.5 over the course of one summer in the USA would lead to 550 extra deaths per year and 7,150 extra deaths over the course of the 13-year study period.

An increase of 1 part per billion in daily ozone could lead to 250 additional people dying, or 3,250 addition deaths, during the study period.

"There were no significant differences in the mortality risk associated with air pollution among individuals living in urban vs rural areas".

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The increased risk of death associated with daily spikes in PM 2.5 and ozone levels persisted even when researchers restricted their analysis to days when the air quality complied with EPA standards.

"No matter where you live - in cities, in the suburbs, or in rural areas - as long as you breathe air pollution, you are at risk".

The editorial, "Low-Level Air Pollution Associated With Death", by Junfeng Zhang, Ph.D., of Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.

Kuo said that the study found that PM2.5 most adversely affects the lung function of elderly people over the 65 and children.

He called for better air pollution alerts to advise the elderly particularly the over 70s who have an increased susceptibility to stay indoors when it is high.

Researchers, who measured air pollution on busy routes during Atlanta's rush hour, found that the pollution contained twice the amount of chemicals that cause oxidative stress, which is thought to be involved in the development of many diseases including respiratory and heart disease, cancer, and some types of neurodegenerative diseases.

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