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Payoff For Less Pollution? Study Says Better Health, Fewer Deaths

American Thoracic Society and Marron Institute Report
New research compares pollution levels, health impacts and population data. Lead author Kevin Cromar says the report will be updated over time and possibly expanded to include PM2.5 spikes.

The American Thoracic Society is one of the organizations that has argued for years that less pollution would mean healthier Americans. The Environmental Protection Agency seemed to be listening last year when it tightened national ozone standards – a little. But new research suggests that even tougher pollution controls could save lives and improve health.

“As discussions about how to best move forward to manage air quality take place, people are going to want to have numbers about what are the health impacts of air pollution,” says Kevin Cromar, director of air quality at the Marron Institute of Urban Management at New York University.  “This report is intended to provide those numbers.”

The research goes to a longstanding debate about how much pollution is too much. It sheds light on an important element of that discussion – health costs.

A Utah native, Cromar led a team behind the thoracic society’s special report. It doesn’t examine the winter pollution spikes famous in northern Utah, but it does project health consequences of steady exposure to high ozone and PM2.5.

Among the findings: The EPA’s new ozone standard of 70 parts per billion will mean 2,656 fewer ozone-related deaths nationwide.  But stricter ozone levels recommended by the thoracic society -- 60 parts per billion – could avert 6,408 deaths and nearly 17 million health incidents.

In the Salt Lake City area, Cromar’s team found, the difference between EPA’s new standard and the thoracic society’s recommendation would be around 13 fewer deaths and nearly 56,000 fewer adverse health events.

“What’s important is: What are the priorities of the local citizens?” Cromar says. “If they would like improvement in air quality, that should be reason enough to try to make progress on the issue.”

Director of pulmonology at University of Utah Health Care and member of the Utah Air Quality Board, Rob Paine says research like this helps policymakers weigh pollution questions.

“The important question is, if we change the ozone level, how much benefit would we see?” he says. “Or, put the other way, because we tolerate a higher ozone level, what are the real costs of that?”

The Wasatch Front doesn’t violate ozone standards now, but state regulators will have to develop cleanup plans in several Utah counties because of EPA’s new regulation to keep ozone at 70 ppb or lower.

Salt Lake City doesn’t stand out for annual average PM2.5 because levels on fall well below what EPA considers “unhealthy.”

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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