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Air pollution kills 24 more Charlotteans a year than it should, medical society says

'Bad air won't let us breathe'

Retired minister Aaron Orr talks about living in Northwood Estates off Beatties Ford Road.
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Retired minister Aaron Orr talks about living in Northwood Estates off Beatties Ford Road.

Air pollution kills 24 more people a year in Charlotte than it would if tougher air standards were enforced, says a study released Wednesday.

The peer-reviewed report comes from the American Thoracic Society, the leading medical association of respiratory disease specialists, and New York University’s Marron Institute for Urban Management.

The medical society says federal standards for two pollutants, ozone and fine particles, are more lenient than they should be. The report includes an online portal that lets user see, by zip code, how many “excess” deaths or illnesses stricter standards would avoid.

The do-it-yourself release of the data is part of a trend toward enlisting citizens to keep their communities healthy. The Charlotte nonprofit group Clean Air Carolina recently outfitted volunteers with portable air monitors that gather data in real time as they go about their days.

“The goal is to get people to see that this is what we are actually breathing,” said one of the volunteers, north Charlotte resident Ron Ross.

The American Thoracic Society report is based on air data from 2011-2013. It estimates that ozone and fine particles cause 9,320 “excess” deaths a year in the U.S. under current air standards. Alcohol-related traffic accidents, by comparison, killed 9,967 in 2014.

Charlotte suffers 24 of those deaths a year, the report says, although ozone levels are now 10 percent lower than those included in the report. Raleigh and Greensboro areas both have 14 deaths, the report said

North Carolina ranks 16th-highest among the states with 115 extra deaths. California leads the list with 3,632 deaths.

“Local citizens have always been able to find out about pollution levels, but what does that mean for health in their community? That’s one of the things they haven’t had access to before,” said Kevin Cromar, an NYU environmental epidemiologist who is the study’s lead author.

Charlotte struggled for decades to control ozone, an invisible gas formed by emissions from traffic, power plants and industries, before finally meeting the federal standard. But the Environmental Protection Agency set a more stringent standard last year of 70 parts per billion. The Thoracic Society says it should be 60 ppb.

Breathing in fine particles, which come from many of the same sources as ozone, can worsen asthma and congestive heart failure and is linked to heart attacks, said Dr. David Peden, an asthma specialist and director of the UNC Center for Environmental Medicine, Asthma and Lung Biology. Children exposed to bad air for long periods suffer diminished lung growth.

“There’s very little question that when you look at health effects, it’s pretty clear that when you have increases of air pollution you increase these events,” Peden said.

Health statistics show an improvement since North Carolina forced cuts in coal-fired power plant pollution, through state legislation in 2002 and a 2006 lawsuit against the Tennessee Valley Authority upwind of the state, Peden said.

But the study released Wednesday showed there is room for more improvement, he said, especially for people who live near operating power plants and busy highways.

Citizen-scientists

In north Charlotte, retired minister Aaron Orr looks to the sky and worries.

Inbound airliners pass over Northwood Estates, his neat, vintage-1960s neighborhood of brick ranch and split-level homes off Beatties Ford Road. Both Interstate 77 and I-85, with their truck stops, are within a half-mile of the neighborhood. A quarry operates up Beatties Ford Road.

“We have some rotten air over here,” Orr said. “We’re not young people, but we don’t want to die before the Lord is ready for us.”

Orr, 75, has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He wonders why so many of his neighbors suffer from Alzheimer’s disease.

Orr and Ross, his neighbor, are helping other residents combat the industrial pollution that plagues so many black communities. Their work is starting by training citizen-scientists.

Two years ago residents began working with Clean Air Carolina and the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation on air and water pollution. Ross has one of the portable fine-particle monitors that Clean Air Carolinas has trained local volunteers to use as part of its Clean Air Zones Monitoring Project.

Mecklenburg County officials say the American Thoracic Society report is useful in increasing public awareness of the health impacts of local air quality. Residents can do most to improve it by driving less, the county says: Join a carpool or van pool, ride a bicycle, or ride the bus to work.

“It is well documented in scientific literature that short- and long-term exposure to elevated levels of ozone and fine particulate matter affects quality of life and even contributes to mortality rates,” said county air quality specialist Shelley Lanham.

But the county adds that it relies on EPA and its science advisors to set standards that will protect public health “rather than a local interpretation of individual national studies.”

EPA, in response to Wednesday’s report, noted that federal law requires the agency to set standards that are neither more nor less stringent enough to protect public health. Standards are meant to prevent pollutant levels that are known to be harmful as well as lower levels that pose unacceptable risks.

“EPA is confident that both the (fine particle) standards, last updated in 2012, and the ozone standards, updated in 2015, meet these requirements,” the agency said in a statement.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender

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