UMN Expert: Recent data points to fatal aspects of air pollution

Jesse Berman, Ph.D.

According to a recent World Health Organization report on global air pollution, nine out of 10 people on the planet breathe polluted air, one of the greatest environmental risks to human health.

“Fine particulate matter” makes air pollution dangerous and lethal. These particles—the largest being 30 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair—lodge in our lungs and can get into our bloodstream. Along with increasing our risks for respiratory diseases, air pollution is to blame for 34 percent of all strokes, 27 percent of all heart disease deaths and 37 percent of all lung cancer deaths.

Breathing outside polluted air killed about 4.2 million people in 2016. Breathing polluted air inside households, a major problem in countries with indoor cooking fires, caused 3.8 million deaths, mostly in women and children.

The report also found that although air pollution is the lowest in high-income countries, it still reduces average life expectancy anywhere from two months to two years.

University of Minnesota School of Public Health air pollution expert Jesse Berman offers insight into U.S. air pollution, why it’s dangerous and the adequacy of our air quality standards.

Jesse Berman, Ph.D.

“A World Health Organization report underscored the extreme impact of air pollution in developing nations. But while global concerns are high, air quality is still a notable issue here in the United States.

“Air pollution is of particular concern because it often carries long distances and has a greater effect on susceptible groups, including young children, the elderly, and those with existing respiratory disease, such as asthma or COPD.

“The U.S. maintains clean air laws to ensure protection of the public’s health. This includes reducing emissions from major sources, such as power generation, vehicle exhaust, industrial processes, as well as natural emissions such as wildfires. However, recent research in the U.S. has demonstrated the adverse effects of air pollution at levels below the current national air quality standards. This highlights the importance of reviewing our clean air laws to ensure adequate health protection, particularly for those at-risk populations.”

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Jesse Berman

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