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Air Quality

Study Shows Burning Fossil Fuels Is Killing Us — Are You OK With That?

A study of 6 urban areas in the US conducted over 18 years finds pollutants from burning fossil fuels lead to higher levels of lung disease and early death. Does that mean we should do something about the problem?

Doing science is hard. You don’t just put on a lab coat, grab a clipboard, and start publishing reports. It takes years and years to collect the raw data and it takes more time to analyze that data in a way that is statistically relevant.

air pollution and human health

Image: Zach Shahan |

Researchers at the University of Washington, Columbia University, and the University of Buffalo recently completed a study designed to determine the long term effects on human health of four atmospheric pollutants that result from burning fossil fuels — fine particulate matter, nitrogen oxide, black carbon, and ozone. The results of their study have now been published by the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The study spanned 18 years and involved more than 7,000 people. It included a detailed examination of the air pollution encountered between 2000 and 2018 in six metropolitan regions across the U.S. — Chicago, Winston-Salem, N.C., Baltimore, Los Angeles, St. Paul, Minnesota, and New York. The participants were drawn from the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA) Air and Lung studies, according to a University of Washington blog post.

“To our knowledge, this is the first longitudinal study to assess the association between long-term exposure to air pollutants and progression of percent emphysema in a large, community-based, multi-ethnic cohort,” said first author Meng Wang, an assistant professor of epidemiology and environmental health at the University at Buffalo who conducted the research as a postdoctoral researcher at UW.

“This is a big study with state-of-the-art analysis of more than 15,000 CT scans repeated on thousands of people over as long as 18 years. These findings matter since ground-level ozone levels are rising, and the amount of emphysema on CT scans predicts hospitalization from and deaths due to chronic lung disease,” said Dr. R. Graham Barr, professor of medicine and epidemiology at Columbia University who led the MESA Lung study and is a senior author of the paper.

“As temperatures rise with climate change,” Barr explained, “ground-level ozone will continue to increase unless steps are taken to reduce this pollutant. But it’s not clear what level of the air pollutants, if any, is safe for human health.”

Emphysema was measured from CT scans that identify holes in the small air sacs of the participants’ lungs, and lung function tests which measure the speed and amount of air breathed in and out. The researchers found that if the ambient ozone level increases by 3 parts per billion where you live compared to another location over 10 years, that could lead to an increase in emphysema equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for 29 years.

The study determined that ozone levels in some major US cities have increasing by that amount partly because of climate change. The annual averages of ozone levels in study areas were between about 10 and 25 parts per billion.

“We were surprised to see how strong air pollution’s impact was on the progression of emphysema on lung scans, in the same league as the effects of cigarette smoking, which is by far the best-known cause of emphysema,” said the study’s senior co-author, Dr. Joel Kaufman, UW professor of environmental and occupational health sciences and epidemiology in the School of Public Health.

“Rates of chronic lung disease in this country are going up and increasingly it is recognized that this disease occurs in nonsmokers,” said Kaufman, also a professor of internal medicine and a physician at UW School of Medicine. “We really need to understand what’s causing chronic lung disease, and it appears that air pollution exposures that are common and hard to avoid might be a major contributor.”

Ozone is created when the exhaust products created by burning fossil fuels react with ultraviolet light, a component of sunshine. While most levels of air pollution are in decline due to successful efforts to reduce them, ozone has been increasing, the study found.

“This study adds to growing evidence of a link between air pollution and emphysema. A better understanding of the impact of pollutants on the lung could lead to more effective ways of preventing and treating this devastating disease,” said James Kiley, director of the Division of Lung Diseases at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health.

“It’s important that we continue to explore factors that impact emphysema,” Kiley added, “particularly in a large, well-characterized multi-ethnic group of adults such as those represented by MESA.”

The Takeaway

What does this mean? Quite simply, it means the waste products created from burning fossil fuels — whether for transportation, or generating electricity, for industrial activity, or for heating homes and buildings — are slowly but surely killing us all. Forget about climate change. We are all living in a cesspool of our own making. If we can’t be bothered to save the world, at least we should be concerned about protecting our own bodies from harm, shouldn’t we?

Here’s one way to look at the situation. Imagine every gasoline or diesel powered vehicle you see today is emitting poison darts aimed straight at the lungs of you and your children. If that thought doesn’t chill you to the bone, then there truly is no hope for humanity.

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Written By

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."


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