Air pollution from cars and power plants increases ER visits for asthma and other respiratory issues

According to a recent study of pollution’s effect on health – the largest ever US study of its kind – ozone and particulate emissions leads to an increase in emergency room visits for respiratory issues like asthma and bronchitis.

The findings, published earlier in 2019, corroborate findings from previous studies that link air pollution from cars and electricity generation to respiratory issues. Yet despite the evidence, the executive branch is rolling back emissions regulations at alarming speeds.

Air pollutants increase ER visits

Researchers from the National Center for Environmental Health (a branch of the CDC), Emory University, and the University of Nevada authored the study, in which they analyzed respiratory-related emergency room visits in 894 counties in 17 states. They compared these ER visits to estimated ozone and PM2.5 particulate concentrations during the week before each visit. The study broke down the estimates by age group (children, adults, and 65+) and outcome (acute respiratory infection, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease [which includes emphysema and bronchitis], and pneumonia).

Results varied based on emissions type and age. The researchers found that children were especially susceptible to particulate emissions. For every 10 micrograms per cubic meter of PM2.5, respiratory ER visits increased 2.4% among children. Fine particulates also increased ER visits for asthma, pneumonia, and acute respiratory infections across the board.

Ozone pollution, on the other hand, most heavily affected adults, particularly around asthma. For every 20 parts-per-billion increase in ozone pollution, ER visits increased 5.1% for adults and 3.3% among individuals 65 and older.

While those numbers aren’t likely to overwhelm hospitals the next times there’s an ozone alert, the findings do confirm a causal relationship between ozone emissions and respiratory issues, which the authors hope regulators can use to inform and guide policy decisions.

Ozone and particulate emissions come from cars, electricity generation

Cars and power plants are largely responsible for both ozone and particulate emissions. You’ve probably heard of ‘good’ ozone, that layer in the atmosphere that shields us from the sun’s harmful UV rays. Here though, we’re talking about man-made, ground-level ozone. Ground-level ozone is known as a secondary pollutant. It isn’t directly emitted from your car’s tailpipe or nearby power plants, but instead produced when sunlight causes a chemical reaction between two common emissions – nitrous oxide and VOCs, or volatile organic compounds.

Particulate matter (or PM), on the other hand, can be directly emitted into the atmosphere. More often though it is formed by a chemical reaction from sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from cars and power plants.

Smoke, dirt, and soot are all forms of large particulate matter, but most types are too small to be seen. The study above looks at PM2.5, particulates that are 2.5 micrometers thick or less. These particulates, about 30x smaller than a human hair, are so fine we can inhale them into our lungs.

Along with carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, the pollutants above make up most of what we call emissions. Beyond the health issues related above, these emissions also contribute to smog, acid rain, and global warming.

Previous studies also show causal link between emissions and health

These findings certainly aren’t surprising anyone in the environmental field. Dozens of previous studies have shown a direct link between air pollution and respiratory issues.

The EPA itself studies or funds studies on air pollution’s effect on children with asthma. It says, “Researchers have long linked asthma— a serious and life threatening chronic respiratory disease that affects the quality of life of more than 23 million Americans— with exposure to air pollution. Air pollution can make asthma symptoms worse and trigger asthma attacks.”

The EPA page above points to a 2018 study from the University of North Carolina, wherein researchers analyzed the effects of ozone on African-American children with severe asthma. They found that increased concentrations of ozone led to a decrease of lung functioning, even if the children used medication like asthma inhalers.

Another study from George Washington University, published in April 2019, estimated that 4 million children worldwide develop asthma each year due to nitrogen oxide pollution (a key component in both ozone and particulate emissions).

Indeed, the authors of the current study wrote that their findings supported the EPA’s own belief that there’s a “likely causal relationship between PM2.5 and respiratory effects and a causal relationship between ozone and respiratory effects.” However, they emphasized that their study also found important variations in those relationships based on the age of the patient, the pollutant, and the respiratory illness under consideration.

Despite evidence, federal government lowering emissions standards

Despite the findings linking air pollutants with an increase in respiratory issues, the federal government has or is attempting to roll back many environmental regulations designed to cap emissions, even as they increase today.

While the US has continually driven down air pollution since 1990, thanks largely to sweeping amendments to the Clean Air Act that Congress passed that same year which, among other things, set in place limits on fine particulate emissions. However, things are changing. The American Lung Association reports that more cities in the US suffered from high ozone and PM2.5 pollution in 2015-2017 than the two years prior.

Despite the scientific evidence, the Trump organization has repeatedly taken steps to rollback clean air initiatives, including weaker regulations for CO2 emissions from power plants and freezing a move to higher fuel economy standards for cars and trucks, to say nothing about backing out of the Paris Climate Agreement and shooting down the entire Obama-era Clean Power Plan.

Trump has repeatedly said he believes he’s fighting against the EPA’s overreaching regulations, which he says hamper the US’ economic growth. But again, studies show that air pollution not only leads to greater health issues, but environmental regulations have actually led to billions in financial benefits nationwide, thanks to the US’ better collective health, which led to fewer lost work days and less trips to the ER.

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