A new report details the drastic improvements in health outcomes that occurred as a result of decreasing air pollution across various countries, including the United States.
There is no doubt that air pollution adversely affects health.
But what is the impact of pollution-reducing public interventions on health? In the hope of answering this question, the Environmental Committee of the Forum of International Respiratory Societies in Lausanne, Switzerland, carried out an investigation.
The report appears in the American Thoracic Society’s (ATS) journal, Annals of the American Thoracic Society.
Dr. Dean Schraufnagel, from the ATS, is the lead author of the report. Dr. Schraufnagel and his team looked at air pollution interventions across the United States, Western Europe, Asia, and Africa.
Reducing pollution cuts mortality, asthma
One of the study’s key findings regards the effects of banning smoking in Ireland. The report found a 13% reduction in mortality from any cause, a 26% drop in the occurrence of ischemic heart disease, as well as a 32% drop in cases of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
The report also details the outcomes of shutting down a steel mill in Utah for 13 months. Hospitals saw reduced admissions for pneumonia, pleurisy, bronchitis, and asthma as a result, particularly among children.
Closing the steel mill also cut school absenteeism by 40% and reduced daily mortality. Shutting down the steel mill for just 13 months halved the concentration of pollutants in the air.
Also, for every 100 micrograms (μg)/cubic meters (m3) of air pollutants, closing the mill resulted in a 16% reduction in deaths.
Finally, women who were pregnant during the shutdown were far less likely to have premature births than those who were pregnant before or after it. This was especially true of women who were in their second trimester during the closure.
Benefits of shutting down transport
Another instance examined by the report was the “alternative transportation strategy” implemented in Atlanta, GA, in the summer of 1996 when the city was hosting the Olympics. During this intervention, the City of Atlanta closed off parts of its downtown to private cars to help athletes travel to their events more efficiently.
The city replaced this part closure with public transport and other telecommuting options. The result was a 28% drop in peak daily ozone concentrations.
Four weeks after the closure, Medicaid records showed a 42% drop in hospital visits related to childhood asthma.
Pediatric visits to the emergency department saw an 11% drop, and overall hospitalizations related to asthma fell by 19%.
A similar phenomenon occurred in China during the 2008 Olympic games. Factory and travel restrictions issued by the government between July 1st and September 20th led to a drop of up to 62% in air pollutant concentrations.
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Asthma-related hospital visits also dropped by 58% within 2 months of the government’s intervention. Rates of cardiovascular mortality — particularly among women and older adults — also fell, as did inflammation among young, healthy adults.
Why public health action is urgently needed
The study’s lead author comments on the findings, saying, “Air pollution is [a] largely avoidable health risk that affects everyone.”
“Urban growth, expanding industrialization, global warming, and new knowledge of the harm of air pollution are among the factors that raise the degree of urgency for pollution control and stress the consequences of inaction,” cautions Dr. Schraufnagel.
“Fortunately, reducing air pollution can result in prompt and substantial health gains. Sweeping policies affecting a whole country can reduce all-cause mortality within weeks. Local programs, such as reducing traffic, have also promptly improved many health measures.”
“We knew there were benefits from pollution control, but the magnitude and relatively short time duration to accomplish them were impressive.”
“Our findings indicate almost immediate and substantial effects on health outcomes followed reduced exposure to air pollution. It’s critical that governments adopt and enforce WHO guidelines for air pollution immediately.”