While some anti-environmentalists claim that clean air standards will cost Americans jobs, a newly published health study shows that clean air standards may have already saved lives.
Published in the June 2014 Journal of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Diseases, the study raises the bar for environmental awareness and provides valuable fuel to the cause of clean air. The research team that conducted the study included scientists from Duke University School of Medicine, the Center for Population Health and Aging at Duke University, the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke and the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
In the study, the Duke researchers analyzed deaths in the state of North Carolina due to respiratory disease during a 17-year period between 1993 and 2010, following the implementation of clean air standards. They found a direct correlation between improved air quality in North Carolina since the 1990s and reduced deaths due to pulmonary disease.
Both national and state air quality standards enacted in the early 1990s have helped to provide cleaner air for the most essential of all human physical functions: breathing. The Duke study provides strong evidence that such air quality standards can help save human lives.
One significant factor in North Carolina was the 1992 Southern Appalachian Mountains Initiative, which led to the enactment of the Clean Smokestacks Act to mandate reduced emissions from coal-fired power plants. Some argue that the coal industry is one of the most toxic of all industries in terms of air pollution, and that it can adversely affect water and soil. The coal lobby has steadfastly stonewalled clean air legislation, but this study stands to significantly change the coal argument.
In the study, the Duke team assessed levels of several toxic and potentially lethal pollutants in the atmosphere during the study period, including those known to emit from coal plants. These pollutants included ozone, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and particulate matters. Data was gathered from monthly data measurements from North Carolina air-monitoring stations.
The group looked at North Carolina residents of all ages, and adjusted their data to exclude smokers (who often die from respiratory disease) and those who were known to have specific lung disorders. They calculated deaths in the state due to emphysema, asthma and pneumonia and found steadily decreasing rates of related deaths as air quality improved.
“While a few studies have analyzed the associations of both air quality and health over a long period, they were typically limited to analyses of a specific air pollutant or a couple of pollutants,” said Dr. Kim Lyerly, who headed up the study team. “In contrast, we leveraged access to multiple disparate databases containing either environmental or health data, and we were able to study longitudinally a number of air contaminants, including both particulate matter and noxious gases over almost two decades.”
According to the study, atmospheric reduction of the pollutants, most notably sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, and particulate matter, directly correlated with lower rates of respiratory deaths.
Many opponents of clean air standards have claimed that there is little science to back up demands for cleaner air, but this rigorous study, which assesses several pollutants and a broad population, provides exactly that science. And while it should be obvious that we all require clean air for healthy respiration, atmospheric standards have been tough to implement, due to strong lobbying in Congress.
In the battle to provide a cleaner environment, the recent Duke study is a landmark event, and it may point the way to a healthier future.