Air pollution costs lives, researchers say

Recent findings underscore the cost of air pollution on human health, and the benefits of reducing it, researchers said Friday at the N.C. BREATHE conference in Charlotte.

While pollution is rarely a direct cause of death, it raises risks that can shave years off an individual’s life. One recent study placed air pollution as the fifth-highest risk factor globally, contributing to 5.5 million deaths in 2013.

The first BREATHE conference was held in Raleigh last year. It moved to UNC Charlotte Center City as UNCC’s “Keeping Watch” initiative focuses this year on air quality, said June Blotnick of Clean Air Carolina, one of the event’s sponsors.

Air pollutants come to life on the side of the UNCC Center City building each night through April 23. The “Particle Falls” animation measures fine airborne particles in real time and displays them in a stream of light.

Fine particles, which come from dust, motor vehicles or industries, are particularly lethal. One-thirtieth the width of a human hair, they work deeply into the lungs and were linked to 3.2 million deaths worldwide in 2010, said scientist Antonella Zanobetti of Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Zanobetti cited a study showing that exposure to particles is more likely to lead to hospitalization for patients with Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. A second study, of New Englanders over 65, linked increased deaths even when particles are within federal standards.

Because pollutants circulate widely in the atmosphere, air pollution poses global health problems, said UNC Chapel Hill’s Jason West. Ozone pollution from North America and Europe causes more deaths elsewhere than in the regions where it originated.

Taking steps to control greenhouse gases linked to climate change can have the added benefit of curbing air pollution. West recently led a study that found that controlling methane can reduce premature deaths by curbing the formation of ozone.

Because it’s expensive to control air pollutants, costs are weighed against public health benefits when federal standards are proposed. That’s the field of Chris Timmins, a Duke University environmental economist.

The last major overhaul of federal clean-air standards, in 1990, cost industries $65 billion in compliance expenses, he said. But the benefits, including fewer premature deaths and work days lost to illness, have been calculated at $2 trillion.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender