Air quality in the US is getting worse and could be killing thousands, study finds

After improving for the better part of a decade, air quality in the US is worsening again -- and could be associated with nearly 10,000 premature deaths and...

Posted: Oct 24, 2019 3:35 AM
Updated: Oct 24, 2019 3:43 AM

After improving for the better part of a decade, air quality in the US is worsening again -- and could be associated with nearly 10,000 premature deaths and billions of dollars in damages, according to a new analysis of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data.

Fine particulate matter in the air Americans breathe fell by 24% between 2009 and 2016. But concentrations have increased by 5.5% in the last two years, and premature deaths associated with exposure to the dangerous particles spiked by 9,700 last year.

Those deaths represent $89 billion in potential damages, according to a working paper published Monday in the National Bureau of Economic Research by two Carnegie Mellon University economists.

While the potential links with early deaths and financial damages are alarming, there are other effects of declining air quality that are more difficult to quantify but are negatively impacting people's lives, the authors say.

"I think the thing that people often overlook and that we don't have great data on is the kid down the block who has asthma, and whose asthma is getting worse. The person who has emphysema for whom breathing is even harder," said Carnegie Mellon professor Karen Clay, who co-authored the paper. "Those peoples' lives are being made worse as well."

The authors say the causes of this slump in air quality need further examination. But they point to three contributing factors -- booming economic activity, increasing wildfires and less strict enforcement of EPA clean-air regulations -- as likely explanations.

The particles the researchers focused on are tiny and are called PM2.5.

They float in the air we breathe and measure barely a fraction of the diameter of a human hair. But despite their small size, the particles have been linked to serious cardiovascular and respiratory problems, especially in children and the elderly.

These particles are tied to certain kinds of economic activity, primarily the burning of natural gas to generate power and increased emissions from diesel vehicles. The paper's authors say their findings are consistent with broader energy consumption trends, like the continuing phase-out of coal-fired power plants in favor of natural gas.

The soot and ash from wildfires that have charred huge swaths of the Western US are also contributing to the declines in air quality but do not account for all of the reversal.

Relaxing environmental regulations has been a signature policy initiative of the Trump administration, from attempting to weaken nationwide fuel-economy standards to replacing President Obama's Clean Power Plan.

But the paper's authors caution that better data is needed on the impact that looser EPA enforcement and deregulation could be having on air quality.

The researchers found that enforcement fell from from 2013 to 2018, a decline that could be the result of more cities and towns meeting federal air-quality standards. But as pollution has increased in 2017 and 2018, researchers have not seen a corresponding rise in compliance actions from the EPA, Clay said.

"The thing that's surprising in terms of enforcement is that now that [pollution] has started to go back up, we might expect to see a response in terms of increasing enforcement activity," Clay said. "And at least the data we have so far don't suggest that."

Oregon Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 190804

Reported Deaths: 2528
CountyCasesDeaths
Multnomah37830583
Washington25279229
Marion21739306
Clackamas17107209
Lane12799145
Jackson10716135
Deschutes866973
Umatilla814084
Linn479867
Yamhill441175
Klamath430861
Polk369952
Malheur349861
Josephine330268
Douglas322070
Benton302619
Jefferson216734
Coos204633
Columbia170526
Union144423
Lincoln137020
Wasco137028
Hood River117930
Morrow110015
Crook106520
Clatsop9738
Baker94614
Curry6459
Tillamook6363
Grant5065
Lake4447
Harney3378
Wallowa1825
Gilliam621
Sherman581
Wheeler281
Unassigned00

California Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 3757115

Reported Deaths: 62280
CountyCasesDeaths
Los Angeles123542224008
Riverside2990644587
San Bernardino2965144697
San Diego2777593725
Orange2707055005
Santa Clara1188512085
Kern1089931373
Sacramento1041761672
Fresno1016251684
Alameda875851545
Ventura808421011
San Joaquin730091391
Contra Costa68503804
Stanislaus619161055
Tulare49554839
Monterey43563382
San Mateo41844568
San Francisco36616543
Santa Barbara34306453
Solano32752249
Merced31743458
Sonoma29975318
Imperial28352721
Kings22965246
Placer22550290
San Luis Obispo21282260
Madera16439242
Santa Cruz16188206
Marin14034228
Yolo13875209
Shasta12071226
Butte11943199
El Dorado10111112
Napa984981
Sutter9411111
Yuba622146
San Benito604863
Lassen569824
Tehama555358
Nevada470775
Tuolumne412364
Mendocino406149
Humboldt393539
Amador365147
Lake346743
Glenn238125
Colusa223016
Siskiyou218123
Calaveras212153
Inyo142638
Del Norte13678
Mono12804
Plumas7066
Modoc4954
Mariposa4457
Trinity3995
Sierra1120
Alpine880
Unassigned330
Medford
Partly Cloudy
49° wxIcon
Hi: 68° Lo: 34°
Feels Like: 49°
Brookings
Clear
52° wxIcon
Hi: 69° Lo: 41°
Feels Like: 52°
Crater Lake
Partly Cloudy
49° wxIcon
Hi: 50° Lo: 22°
Feels Like: 49°
Grants Pass
Partly Cloudy
49° wxIcon
Hi: 70° Lo: 36°
Feels Like: 49°
Klamath Falls
Partly Cloudy
39° wxIcon
Hi: 60° Lo: 28°
Feels Like: 39°
Quiet Mother's Day Weekend
KDRV Radar
KDRV Fire Danger
KDRV Weather Cam

Community Events

Latest Video

Image

Saturday, May 8th Evening Weather

Image

Saturday, May 8th Morning Weather

Image

Friday, May 7th Evening Weather

Image

Oregon Dept. of Education: Grants Pass SD

Image

Friday, May 7 morning weather

Image

Oregon Dept. of Education: Phoenix-Talent SD

Image

Medford Police Livability Team begins the process of cleaning up the Greenway

Image

Thursday, May 6th Evening Weather

Image

Thursday, May 6 morning weather

Image

Wednesday, May 5th Evening Weather