Air pollution kills people. This is not an abstract, faraway, or uncertain conclusion.
Public health researchers are beginning to conclude there is no safe level of air pollution. Even small doses trigger health problems. And the greater the concentration, the worse the health outcomes. All told, outdoor air pollution is among the world’s greatest public health risks, responsible for nearly 4.5 million deaths worldwide in 2015.
Why is this relevant to climate change? The primary solution to climate change is also the most potent way to tackle air pollution: Burn less fossil fuel. Resistance remains to taking action to address climate change, particularly among Republican lawmakers, in part because some of the worst consequences of climate change seem far away in time and space. Some might see melting ice sheets, human migrations in other parts of the world, or species extinctions in boreal forests as unlikely or unimportant.
But shifting the topic to air pollution allows for a more direct way to connect the problem with its consequences.
In the U.S., air pollution kills around 100,000 people every year. It’s the cause of 3% of all U.S. deaths, which is more deaths than traffic accidents and homicides combined, and air pollution costs the American economy up to $1 trillion per year. So while some still debate the greenhouse effect, few can deny the importance of saving American lives – and lungs.
Why air pollution is deadly
The most damaging culprit is called PM 2.5 - particulate matter less than 2.5 microns in size. About 200 PM 2.5 particles could fit end-to-end across a single grain of sugar. The human body is well equipped to deal with large airborne particles like pollen and heavy dust. But smaller particles are inhaled deeply into the lungs and can enter the bloodstream.
Health effects from fine particulate matter include aggravated asthma, respiratory infections, lung cancer, heart disease, stroke, cognitive impairment, and premature death. The World Health Organization has classified small particulates as a Group 1 carcinogen, which means there is sufficient evidence to conclude that it can cause cancer in humans.
Sources of human-caused particulate matter include fossil fuel combustion, vehicles, agriculture, road dust, and fires.
Small particulate matter is the most ravaging and deadly form of air pollution, but it’s not the only kind. Sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, ozone, and ammonia also cause major health problems.
How air pollution affects people in the U.S.
When many people imagine unhealthy air, images of Beijing or Delhi come to mind. Indeed, air pollution kills millions of people in Asia and India. But the toll right here at home is far greater than many realize. A number of recent studies found that human-caused outdoor air pollution causes 100,000-200,000 premature U.S. deaths each year.
The geographic distribution of health problems varies with the specific source of pollution. Coal power plants diminish public health in the Appalachian region. Vehicle pollution is greatest in urban areas. And industrial pollution occurs in hotspots throughout Texas and the Southeast.
As is the case for many environmental problems, those who bear the gravest consequences are not the ones who cause the damage. In the U.S., areas with high poverty rates endure disproportionately high health and economic impacts from air pollution. Furthermore, a recent study found that non-Hispanic whites breathe in around 17% less air pollution than they cause by their own consumption, while black and Hispanic people inhale more than 50% more pollution than is generated by their actions.
The economic cost of air pollution in the U.S.
Illness and loss of life exert a heavy burden to humanity, but the harm doesn’t end there. Health problems inflict a financial toll because of health care costs, lost productivity from missed work days and school days, and reduced economic growth. The price tag for the health effects of human-caused air pollution in the U.S. is estimated at $886 billion to $1 trillion per year.
To look at it another way, the high financial consequence for air pollution offers a direct incentive to fix the problem. Money spent reducing pollution is money saved in preventing the damage. The Clean Air Act offers a stunning example: It cost $65 billion to implement and saved $2 trillion in avoided costs – a 30-fold payback.
Energy consumption accounts for the lion’s share of human-caused air pollution, causing 57% of the economic damage, or $505 billion per year in the U.S. Included in that number are $248 billion in annual costs from transportation-related pollution, and a $124 billion price tag for pollution from electricity generation. These expenses are often considered an indirect subsidy for the fossil fuel industry because the industry levies the damage while taxpayers bear the consequences.
Good news: Reduction in coal burning saves lives
Thanks in part to environmental regulations, the U.S. has had generally improving air quality over the past 50 years.
Further gains in public health have been made as economic headwinds have shuttered coal-burning power plants. A recent paper in the research journal Nature Sustainability estimates that 26,600 American lives have been saved between 2005 and 2016 because of coal plant closures, along with an additional benefit of saving 570 million bushels of corn, soybeans, and wheat near the power plants.
To put those promising results in perspective, coal-fired generation in the U.S. during that same time period caused 329,000 deaths and suppressed crop yields by 10.2 billion bushels. Although progress is being made, much work remains to be done.
Bad news: Air pollution is getting worse and regulations are being weakened
Reducing air pollution is a goal shared by some but not all policymakers. In 2017, President Trump appointed contrarian toxicologist Robert Phalen to the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, which reviews scientific information that is used to make or revise EPA regulations. Phalen has said that “Modern air is a little too clean for optimum health,” a claim not supported by well-established science. At the Science Advisory Board, he joined others with industry-friendly interpretations of environmental priorities.
The EPA’s “Affordable Clean Energy” rule would worsen air quality in the U.S., according to the EPA’s own analysis. The proposed rules would result in 1,000 additional air pollution deaths per year by 2030, along with 48,000 cases of exacerbated asthma, 42,000 lost work days and 60,000 missed school days. By 2030 the annual price tag for increasing health impairments because of the relaxed rules could reach $11 billion.
Meanwhile, EPA data show an uptick in PM 2.5 since 2016. According to a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the rise in particulate pollution was caused by growth in natural gas burning, increased vehicle use, lack of enforcement of air quality standards, and wildfires. PM 2.5 rose by 5.5% from 2016 to 2018, while causing 9,700 additional premature deaths in 2018 and inflicting economic damages of $89 billion.
The immediate benefits of addressing air pollution
Actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions can be a hard sell among skeptical audiences. Common avenues of resistance are that it will cost too much, or that China is the real culprit of climate change, or that the effects of climate action are too intangible. But by shifting the topic to air pollution, those arguments may fall away. Reducing air pollution by burning less fossil fuels offers concrete, immediate, and local benefits for people and for the economy.
Case in point: A worldwide phase-out of fossil fuels would prevent the premature deaths of 3 to 4 million people each year, according to a 2019 study. Another study concluded that aggressive climate policy would avert 150 million air-pollution deaths worldwide over the next 80 years – and this is in addition to the social benefits of reducing the climate impacts like heat stress, flooding, and crop loss.
As policymakers pencil out the costs for climate mitigation, it’s worth noting that the economic gains from reducing air pollution substantially outweigh the cost of achieving greenhouse gas emissions targets at either 1.5 degree Celsius or 2 degree Celsius thresholds. In some cases, the savings from avoiding pollution would be more than double the costs of emissions reduction, with the biggest benefits going to nations like China and India. In the U.S., an estimated 10 to 41% of the price tag for lowering greenhouse emissions could be offset by improvements in public health.
A rhetorical advantage to talking about air pollution is that unlike climate change, the issue dodges the steady drumbeat of dismissive talking points. While cries of, “But the climate has changed before!” resonate across any discussion of climate change, there are few arguments that can be levied in support of air pollution.
Better yet, a fresh angle on climate solutions can pave the way for building common ground. By sidestepping the land mines of tired talking points, it’s easier to direct the discussion to where it’s needed most: how to ease the burden of pollution on the planet and ourselves.