Sensors and electronic health records reveal block-by-block traffic air pollution health disparities among the elderly in Oakland

Dr. Ananya Roy is a Health Scientist

Many public heath efforts, thankfully, focus on the youngest among us. We fight for a clean environment and healthy future for our kids. However, it is easy to forget that pollution affects us in every stage of life and its insidious health effects accumulate over time and can result in disease and disability.

Older people already have higher rates of disease and are highly vulnerable to air pollution, because they have been breathing for 70, 80, or 90 years. The effects of air pollution among the elderly provide insights that help us solve problems that can benefit the whole population.

Senior citizens have become the largest and fastest-growing segment of the population. By 2030 one in five Americans will be 65 and older, a demographic shift that influences everything from consumer behavior to health-care costs. Further, grandparents play a critical role in the success of families and the next generation – both emotionally and physically. It is estimated that for approximately 4.9 million families with children, the grandparent is the main breadwinner.

Due to the importance of senior citizens in our society and their unique vulnerability to pollution, the insights EDF scientists and our partners made in a new study published in Environmental Health are especially critical. The study shows that differences in traffic-related air pollution are associated with higher rates of heart attacks and deaths from heart disease in the elderly.

Using cool new technology and data analytics, EDF teamed up with Kaiser Permanente Northern California’s Division of Research to combine data from our block-by-block study of air pollution in Oakland, CA, with electronic health records from more than 40,000 local residents. This approach allowed us to evaluate the impacts of air quality between neighbors, people who live on the same street, or within a few blocks of each other at an unprecedented resolution.

The study shows that two kinds of air pollution from cars and trucks cause serious health problems. Even small (3.9 parts per billion) increases in smog-causing pollutants are associated with a 16% increased risk of diagnosed heart attacks, surgery or death from heart disease among the elderly. The same was true of black carbon, a type of soot from trucks, where small increases in concentration are associated with a 15% increased risk.

This study builds upon our partnership with Google to investigate and map air pollution. In 2017, we revealed the results of our work with Google Earth Outreach, which deployed Google Street View cars to create one of the largest mobile air pollution measurements ever assembled. They mapped the differences in air quality within Oakland. They also uncovered unexpected variation in air pollution within small neighborhoods and even individual city blocks. The results of this health study provide proof of concept that these differences in street level air pollution on the doorsteps of people’s homes have serious consequences for the residents of communities.

Explore the results of the study on this map.

Why is this study so valuable? Because local action requires local information. While researchers have studied air pollution and health effects across populations in large neighborhoods, towns or cities, accurately evaluating and quantifying risks from air pollution at the street level–where people live–has been elusive until now.

This research is part of EDF’s effort to advance the science behind air quality monitoring, using an emerging wave of environmental innovation to make pollution not only visible but actionable. EDF is not only tracking and measuring air pollution, but also bringing academia, industry, community groups and the public sector, together to develop solutions and take these ideas to scale.

With data like this, we can improve the lives of the 4 out of 5 Americans who reside in urban areas. That will mean the elderly, and all of us, can live healthier lives.

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