Public Health & Recreation

As Coronavirus Takes Precedence, Rhode Island Air Pollution Concerns Linger


The Trump administration recently proposed not to set stricter national air quality standards. That decision was made with complete disregard for the overwhelming scientific evidence that the current levels of air pollution are killing tens of thousands of U.S. citizens every year.

As a result, about one-third as many Rhode Islanders will die from polluted air as will die from the coronavirus. To put it another way, by not lowering the allowed air pollution level, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is essentially choosing to let two Rhode Islanders die each day because of unhealthy air.

The projected range of COVID-19 deaths in Rhode Island, as reported by the state Department of Health on April 17, are uncertain, so we have shown the data as the red band in the graph above. The actual data, through April 19, are shown as blue diamonds. The calculation of the estimated number of premature deaths from air pollution is also described in this graph.

Against the advice of the EPA’s own panel of experts, its administrator, Andrew Wheeler, who for years worked as a lobbyist for some of the largest coal, chemical, and uranium companies in the country, announced that the federal agency would maintain the current standards for soot. He called the current limits on soot “protective of public health.”

The air pollution deaths in the above graph are due directly to the pollution of fine particulate matter, which is often referred as soot, but is more correctly known as Particulate Matter (PM) 2.5, because the particles are less than 2.5 microns in diameter, which is 25 times less than a human hair.

PM 2.5 particles are associated with increased risk of death from heart disease, strokes, atherosclerosis, and respiratory problems. Emerging data show that PM 2.5 particles may also be linked to several types of cancers.

Like so many pollutants, the effects on children are most worrying. In children, PM 2.5 exposure results in impaired lung development; respiratory problems such as asthma, allergies, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD); and respiratory infections.

Coughs and sneezes force larger particles out of our bodies. But that doesn’t work for the tiny PM 2.5 particles, which get trapped in the lungs. They are so small they can pass through the lungs and into the bloodstream.

Other groups also face higher risk from PM 2.5 pollution, including seniors, people with lung disease, asthma, and COPD, and people with heart disease or diabetes.

Apart from children, those same groups are also the most at risk from the coronavirus. In fact, for people with lung problems, COVID-19 is particularly vicious.

But even healthy people are at risk if they live near sites with high levels of particle pollution, such as power plants, busy roads, and major highways.

In Rhode Island, PM 2.5 levels have fallen significantly since 1990. As a result, mortality rates due to PM 2.5 pollution have also declined. Nevertheless, PM 2.5 still remains a grave threat to Rhode Islanders and could be responsible for between 500 and 1,200 premature deaths annually, according to a 2009 EPA science assessment.

Spikes in particle pollution can last from hours to days. Even a short, two-day exposure to elevated levels of PM 2.5 particles can result in a 2.8 percent increase in soot-related deaths, according to a 2013 study.

Burning fossil fuels in factories, power plants, and in diesel- and gasoline-powered cars and trucks generate coarse particles, as do dust storms, construction and demolition, mining operations, and agriculture. Bacteria, pollen, mold, and plant and animal debris are also included as coarse particles. These coarse particles are broken down in the atmosphere into increasingly finer particles by chemical processes.

Which brings us back to the EPA’s recent proposal. The agency’s expert panel emphasized the strong and robust scientific evidence of serious health effects associated with both long-term and short-term exposures to PM 2.5.

The current allowable level of PM 2.5 is 35 micrograms per cubic meter (μg/m3) and the EPA is proposing not to lower that to 25 μg/m3. That 10 μg/m3 decrease in the PM 2.5 level could save hundreds of lives per year in Rhode Island.

While we are all justifiably concerned about the growing number of casualties from COVID-19, it’s important we also keep our eye on Rhode Island’s air pollution concerns.

The best scientific evidence shows that less pollution, of all types of particles, leads to better health and longer lives. This will still be true long after the coronavirus has left us.

Roger Warburton, Ph.D., is a Newport, R.I., resident.

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