The Costs Of Particulate Matter To American Health

This blog post was written by Dr. Bonnie New, former Director of Health Professionals for Clean Air.

Physicians treating patients with respiratory symptoms look for underlying causes or aggravators, and that includes exposure to air pollution.

If that pollution involves particulate matter – also known as soot – their concerns intensify, because of its well-known negative health impacts.

Many studies demonstrate associations between short- and long-term exposures to fine particle air pollution (PM2.5) and cardiopulmonary disease and mortality.

PM2.5 exposure is also associated with:

  • endocrine and reproductive dysfunction, including pre-term and low birth-weight babies;
  • increases in lung cancer;
  • increases in the development of vascular disease; and
  • increases in diabetes mortality.

In addition to aggravating existing asthma and other lung diseases, PM2.5 has been linked to retarded lung growth and reduced lung function in children, and even with de novo (newly occurring) development of respiratory problems in infants and children. Research also shows that reductions in PM2.5 are associated with reductions in adverse health effects and improved life expectancy.

It’s important to state here that currently, there is no identified level of PM2.5 that is known to not make people sick.

The groups most susceptible to adverse health effects from PM2.5 are infants, children, teens, the elderly, and those with existing lung and cardiovascular problems. Taken together, this represents almost half of the U.S. population.

Impacts to the Economy

When we see the large impacts of pollution on health, it’s impossible not to notice the financial impacts as well.

The economic impact of preventable illness and death related to soot pollution in the U.S. is staggering, estimated in the hundreds of billions of dollars every year. The functional impact on the lives of those affected and their families is also dramatic.

As doctors, we deal with not only the challenges of diagnosis and treatment, but with the sadness, frustration and pain of people who can not live normal lives and children who can not enjoy just being kids.

It raises anger in physicians to hear from those opposing health-based air quality regulations on the basis that such regulations would be “too costly”. It’s not like the costs are avoided if regulations are not put into place. The costs are simply shifted to our patients, and to the health care system. The costs are paid for in lives impaired and lives lost, in kids who can’t run and play, in increasing hospitalizations and people missing work and school because they’re sick.

Shifting costs like this from polluters to the general public makes for healthy business profits, but sick and unhappy people. As patient advocates, doctors have good reason to be angry. The public, those current and future patients and families, do too.

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