Air Quality

Air Pollution Levels Linked to Disease, IQ Decline In Kids

A new study from Boston College found that air quality, even within acceptable EPA standards, has major negative effects on the health of kids and adults in the US.

Originally Published: 
Worried mother looking at son using inhaler when having asthma attack at home

The U.S. has some of the cleanest air of any industrialized nation, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t still deadly. A new study out of Boston College found evidence that air quality is a major killer in the U.S., affecting both kids and adults in insidious ways.

The research team took a county-by-county and town-by-town approach in analyzing air quality and disease data in Massachusetts, and their results were startling.

Air pollution was responsible for almost 3,000 total deaths and measurable cognitive loss and chronic disease in children in 2019. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standard for particulate air pollution is 12 micrograms per cubic meter of air. In comparison, the World Health Organization's (WHO) acceptable standard is considerably lower at five micrograms per cubic meter. The particulate air pollution in Massachusetts ranged from 2.77 micrograms, well below the WHO standard, to 8.26 micrograms, above the WHO standard but within the acceptable range set by the EPA for the U.S.

“This report gives the people in every city and town [in Massachusetts] the opportunity to see for themselves the quality of the air they and their families are breathing and the dangerous health implications for both adults and children as a consequence of air pollution,” lead author Philip J. Landrigan, M.D., a Boston College Professor of Biology, said in a statement.

Researchers found a link between air pollution levels and disease, death, and IQ decline across the state. In 2019, 2,780 people died from air pollution-related causes, 15,386 children developed asthma, 308 babies were born with low birth weight (5.5 lbs or less), and children experienced an average of two points in IQ decline. Unsurprisingly, the effects of air pollution were more significant in marginalized and low-income communities.

“All of these adverse health effects occur at fine particulate matter pollution levels below the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s current annual standard of 12 micrograms per cubic meter,” said Landrigan. “So even for a state like Massachusetts, which registered below that standard, air pollution is a formidable public health threat that needs urgently to be addressed.”

The majority of air pollution comes from fossil fuel combustion. In 2017, trains, cars, boats, and buses created 655,000 tons of air pollution. Power plants, industrial facilities, and home heating and cooking contributed 283,000 tons.

Recent research has pointed at natural gas appliances in homes as a more significant cause of air pollution and greenhouse gases than previously thought, affecting not only outdoor air quality but the quality of air inside homes as well. Researchers found that as many as 75% of gas stoves leak, adding an unsafe amount of methane into indoor and outdoor spaces.

To improve indoor air quality, consider adding an air purifier that filters small particulate matter and allergens. Turn on oven hoods and open kitchen windows before engaging burners to route gas away from indoor spaces.

Study authors’ suggestions for addressing the air pollution crisis included pressuring the EPA and state officials to lower acceptable ranges for air pollution, transitioning government fleets to electric vehicles, prohibiting natural gas lines in new construction, and embracing wind and other green electricity alternatives.

“Clearly, current EPA air pollution standards are not adequately protecting public health,” Landrigan said.

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