Impact of air pollution on health may be far worse than previously thought

Short periods of exposure to air-pollution has been closely connected to a frightening number of hospitalizations for a number of health issues – more than previously believed, new research reveals.

Pollution can damage our bodies and in turn our wallets, researchers from Harvard University noted. 

“The health dangers and economic impacts of air pollution are significantly larger than previously understood,” co-author Yaguang Wei, doctoral candidate at the university’s school of public health said in a press release

The poor quality of air was linked to everything from urinary tract infections, to infections of tissue and skin, to heart failure, researchers revealed.

Insurance claims have reached numbers of more than 95 million between 2000 and 2002 in the United States and were examined by a team, which focused on patients 65 or older enrolled in the Medicare program.

Wei and the team were able to determine air quality levels for each patient in the two days before hospitalization.

They looked at specific types of air pollution called fine particular matter, or PM2.5, that is known for its small size and ability to go through organs such as lungs, causing serious health problems.

This type of pollution is caused by sources like power plants, cars, and even forest fires.

By studying the zip codes of patients, scientists were able to tell the PM2.5 levels in their neighborhoods.

The findings reveal that even a small rise in PM2.5 over two days was linked to an annual increase of over 5,500 hospitalizations, 30,000 days, and more than 600 deaths for various illnesses related to air pollution.

“We found that several prevalent but rarely studied disease groups were associated with PM2.5,” which include electrolyte disorders, kidney failure, Parkinson’s disease and diabetes, the study reads.

The results remained consistent even when PM2.5 levels were below the guidelines of the World Health Organization (WHO), the study revealed.

The rise in air pollution was also linked with US$100-million annual inpatient and post-care costs, in addition to a $6.5 billion in “value of statistical life,” which shows the economic value of deaths.

“These results raise awareness of the continued importance of assessing the impact of air pollution exposure,” co-author Francesca Dominici stated.

The deep link between PM2.5 and a myriad of diseases means that standards by the WHO and the National Ambient Air Quality Standards in the U.S. need to be revised, she said.

A 2018 report by Environment and Climate Change Canada discovered that PM2.5 concentrations have been below Canadian Ambient Air Quality Standards since 2002.

Tighter yearly standards were introduced back in 2013, which is 28 micrograms per cubic meter, a little higher than WHO’s standard of 25 micrograms.

WHO air quality standards are currently under revision, and an updated version will be released in 2020, according to their website.

The Harvard study, along with other recent research, found that air pollution has an impact on nearly all body cells, damages organs and is being associated with all things from fertility issues to dementia.

In 2018, Global News reported that more than 7000 Canadians had passed away due to continuous exposure to air pollution in 2015.

All these are clear signs that Canadians need to be wary of even low-level pollution, Christopher Carlsten, director of the Air Pollution Lab at the University of British Columbia, previously told Global News.

“At these relatively clean levels that we enjoy in Toronto and Vancouver, small changes in air pollution levels can lead to major changes in health effects.”

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