New research from UW-Madison quantifies the health costs of air pollution.
The study, just published in the journal GeoHealth, finds that cleaning up certain pollutants in the air could prevent more than 50,000 premature deaths across the US each year.
Nick Mailloux is a PhD student at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at UW-Madison. Mailloux is the lead author on the article.
“We tried to understand what the potential air quality health benefits would be if we were to completely eliminate sources of fine particulate matter pollution from major sectors of the economy,” says Mailloux.
These sources include fuel combustion for electric utilities and industry, as well as highway vehicles and oil and gas production and refinement.
“These sectors constitute about 90% of planet warming greenhouse gas emissions in the US and are also major sources of particulate matter that lead to health damages. So the same sectors that we need to ratchet down emissions to reach climate goals in the US are also health harming sectors. So there would be a lot of co-benefits that would come from emissions reductions in those sectors,” explains Mailloux.
Mailloux says nationwide removal of these pollutants could prevent about 11,000 deaths in the Midwest each year, including over 400 in Wisconsin.
The emissions studied are specifically air-pollutants that are shown to have negative health impacts. These are fine particulate matter, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. The health effects that come with exposure to these include COPD, lower respiratory infections, lung cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
Along with negative health impacts comes the related financial cost. The study estimates the costs incurred through death and illness exceeds $600 billion per year.
The study cites prior research that shows US wind and solar deployment from 2007 to 2015 resulted in billions of dollars in air quality benefits and prevented more than 3000 premature deaths.
Reducing these pollutants in a region doesn’t only have health benefits for that region. On average, slightly less than half of the emissions removal in a state remain in that state. Due to air movement, some states can not reap the benefits of taking action on this issue. All regions get more benefit from nationwide action than state or regional action.
The study also found that reducing particulate matter pollution from on-the-road vehicles would do the most to prevent negative health effects.
“There is the potential for immense harm that can happen as a result of climate change, but there is also an immense benefit that we can get by taking actions we need to reduce the impacts of climate change in the long term. And it’s these health benefits from air quality improvements that really struck me as a salient conversation point to be able to enter the discussion,” says Mailloux.
“One of the benefits of these emissions changes is that you might have to wait decades for the total climate benefit of some climate action to take effect, but the benefit you get from improvements in air quality begin to accrue as soon as you take the action.”
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