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Causes Of Poor Air Quality In U.S. Studied
July 30, 2020

Air pollution has long been known as a source of environmental destruction as well as various health issues ranging from mild to severe respiratory aliments. Now, according to information provided by the University of Minnesota (U of M), researchers have provided an unprecedented look at the causes of poor air quality in the United States and its effects on human health.

With financial support provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the study Mortality from Air Pollution in the United States by Targeting Specific Emission Sources, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters, finds that air pollution from sources in the United States leads to 100,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. About half of these deaths are from burning fossil fuels, but researchers also identified less obvious sources of lethal pollution.

According to Sumil Thakrar, postdoctoral research associate in the Departments of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering and Applied Economics at U of M, “People usually think of power plants and cars, but nowadays, livestock and wood stoves are as big of a problem. It’s also our farms and our homes.”

The research team, including researchers from Carnegie Mellon University, Stanford University, University of Patras, Brigham Young University, University of California, Berkeley, University of Illinois and the University of Washington, found that while some sectors of the economy, such as electricity production and transportation, have reduced pollution amid government regulations, others have received less attention, including agriculture and residential buildings.

Researchers examined U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data on all pollution sources in the United States, including their location and how much pollution they emit. They then used newly-developed computer models to determine where pollution travels and how it affects human health.

Researchers focused on one particularly harmful pollutant: fine particulate matter, also known as PM2.5, which is associated with heart attacks, strokes, lung cancer and other diseases. In examining the data, they discovered that about half of all PM2.5 air pollution-related deaths are from burning fossil fuels, with the remaining largely from animal agriculture, dust from construction and roads, and burning wood for heating and cooking.

“Essentially we’re asking, ‘what’s killing people and how do we stop it?’” Dr. Thakrar said. “The first step in reducing deaths is learning the impact of each and every emission source.”

In the U.S., air quality is largely regulated by the federal government, which sets maximum allowable levels of pollution in different areas. States and local governments are then charged with enforcing those limits. The authors suggest regulators can improve this broad-brush approach by focusing instead on reducing emissions from specific sources.

“Our work provides key insights into the sources of damage caused by air pollution and suggests ways to reduce impacts,” said Dr. Thakrar. “We hope policymakers and the public will use this to improve the lives of Americans.”

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