When Laws Save Lives: Cleaner Air Increased Life Expectancy by 5 Months

By Eliza Strickland | January 22, 2009 6:06 pm

air pollutionIt may be a platitude that fresh, clean air is good for you, but now researchers have quantified how much cleaning up air pollution has improved the public health: It has boosted the lifespan of the average American city-dweller by five months.

Coauthor Majid Ezzatin explains that when his team examined three decades of health data from 51 U.S. cities, researchers found that people are living about three years longer than they did before. Controlling for changes in income, education, demographics and smoking, about five months of that can be chalked up to air improvements…. “Rather than just saying pollution is bad for health,” he said, “we can say that regulations are good for health” [Wired News].

For the study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers compared data collected in 1980 and 2000, three decades over which air pollution regulations tightened significantly. Lead researcher C. Arden Pope says the new findings prove that the investments made in environmental technologies since then are paying off. “We are getting a return on our investment,” said Pope, … adding that cutting air pollutants in major cities amounted to “a large, nationwide, natural experiment.” Between 1980 and 2000, federal regulations on power plants, including the acid rain program, helped reduce smog ingredients such as sulfur dioxide significantly, while the installation of catalytic converters on vehicles cut nitrogen oxide pollution across the country [Washington Post].

Long-term exposure to dirty air — specifically, the tiny specks known as fine-particulate air pollution — shortens lives and contributes to cardiovascular and lung disease. Particulate matter is inhaled almost like a gas and is thought to hike blood pressure, heart attack risk, and the chance of heart disease-related death [CNN]. The tiny particles are spewed into the air by coal-burning power plants and factories, and from the tailpipes of cars and trucks. Not surprisingly, the biggest increase in lifespan came in cities where the greatest gains in air quality have been made–in Buffalo and Pittsburgh, for example, the cleanup is causing people to live about 10 months longer.

Pope also says there is still room to improve. Even cities with relatively clean air may be able to reap additional public health benefits by getting old, polluting vehicles off the road and cutting down further on industrial emissions.

Related Content:
80beats: Olympic Air Quality Still Troubles Athletes
DISCOVER: The Smoking Torch explains what smog does to an athlete’s lungs
DISCOVER: Air Pollution Linked to Genetic Mutations
DISCOVER: Fetuses Take Air Pollution to Heart

Image: flickr / peasap

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Health & Medicine
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