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Air quality in the US is getting worse and could be killing thousands, study finds

After improving for the better part of a decade, air quality in the US is worsening again -- and could be associated with nearly 10,000 premature deaths and...

Posted: Oct 24, 2019 8:56 AM

After improving for the better part of a decade, air quality in the US is worsening again -- and could be associated with nearly 10,000 premature deaths and billions of dollars in damages, according to a new analysis of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data.

Fine particulate matter in the air Americans breathe fell by 24% between 2009 and 2016. But concentrations have increased by 5.5% in the last two years, and premature deaths associated with exposure to the dangerous particles spiked by 9,700 last year.

Those deaths represent $89 billion in potential damages, according to a working paper published Monday in the National Bureau of Economic Research by two Carnegie Mellon University economists.

While the potential links with early deaths and financial damages are alarming, there are other effects of declining air quality that are more difficult to quantify but are negatively impacting people's lives, the authors say.

"I think the thing that people often overlook and that we don't have great data on is the kid down the block who has asthma, and whose asthma is getting worse. The person who has emphysema for whom breathing is even harder," said Carnegie Mellon professor Karen Clay, who co-authored the paper. "Those peoples' lives are being made worse as well."

The authors say the causes of this slump in air quality need further examination. But they point to three contributing factors -- booming economic activity, increasing wildfires and less strict enforcement of EPA clean-air regulations -- as likely explanations.

The particles the researchers focused on are tiny and are called PM2.5.

They float in the air we breathe and measure barely a fraction of the diameter of a human hair. But despite their small size, the particles have been linked to serious cardiovascular and respiratory problems, especially in children and the elderly.

These particles are tied to certain kinds of economic activity, primarily the burning of natural gas to generate power and increased emissions from diesel vehicles. The paper's authors say their findings are consistent with broader energy consumption trends, like the continuing phase-out of coal-fired power plants in favor of natural gas.

The soot and ash from wildfires that have charred huge swaths of the Western US are also contributing to the declines in air quality but do not account for all of the reversal.

Relaxing environmental regulations has been a signature policy initiative of the Trump administration, from attempting to weaken nationwide fuel-economy standards to replacing President Obama's Clean Power Plan.

But the paper's authors caution that better data is needed on the impact that looser EPA enforcement and deregulation could be having on air quality.

The researchers found that enforcement fell from from 2013 to 2018, a decline that could be the result of more cities and towns meeting federal air-quality standards. But as pollution has increased in 2017 and 2018, researchers have not seen a corresponding rise in compliance actions from the EPA, Clay said.

"The thing that's surprising in terms of enforcement is that now that [pollution] has started to go back up, we might expect to see a response in terms of increasing enforcement activity," Clay said. "And at least the data we have so far don't suggest that."

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 159036

Reported Deaths: 3879
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto10708104
Hinds10519205
Harrison7555113
Jackson6708128
Rankin6130112
Lee547697
Madison5202110
Forrest400187
Jones382189
Lauderdale3727147
Lafayette344057
Washington3367108
Lamar307550
Lowndes261167
Oktibbeha259962
Bolivar250185
Panola240253
Neshoba2311122
Marshall227151
Leflore213991
Monroe212278
Pontotoc211231
Lincoln200867
Sunflower195555
Warren184958
Tate184051
Union176826
Copiah172540
Pike168360
Pearl River163870
Yazoo162940
Scott162730
Itawamba162637
Alcorn160428
Coahoma157844
Prentiss156732
Simpson155153
Adams148352
Grenada147145
Leake143344
Holmes135761
Covington135541
Tippah132530
George131725
Winston131726
Hancock130942
Wayne124924
Attala124735
Marion124248
Tishomingo114844
Chickasaw112132
Newton112129
Tallahatchie100727
Clay97127
Clarke95653
Jasper88523
Stone83115
Calhoun81513
Walthall79930
Montgomery78826
Carroll76315
Smith75716
Lawrence75214
Yalobusha74428
Noxubee74217
Perry69326
Tunica63519
Greene63022
Jefferson Davis60217
Amite59315
Claiborne59316
Humphreys55719
Quitman5117
Benton50518
Kemper49318
Webster47914
Wilkinson41322
Jefferson38712
Franklin3726
Choctaw3697
Sharkey33117
Issaquena1234
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Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 260359

Reported Deaths: 3776
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson34716513
Mobile20452370
Madison14215153
Tuscaloosa13755173
Montgomery12731243
Shelby1110278
Baldwin9341137
Lee801566
Morgan722855
Etowah692170
Calhoun6809121
Marshall675058
Houston552739
DeKalb512940
Cullman480246
St. Clair460357
Limestone455046
Lauderdale443357
Elmore432567
Walker3861112
Talladega381157
Jackson361623
Colbert341546
Blount315845
Autauga289342
Franklin262634
Coffee257717
Dale244454
Dallas234932
Chilton233641
Covington232434
Russell23153
Escambia206932
Tallapoosa190291
Chambers187551
Clarke164120
Pike163814
Marion148236
Winston144725
Lawrence137336
Pickens129720
Geneva12818
Marengo126724
Bibb125238
Barbour121429
Butler120042
Randolph107022
Cherokee106724
Hale101432
Fayette99916
Clay94825
Washington93921
Henry8996
Monroe84611
Lowndes82629
Cleburne80714
Macon77122
Crenshaw73330
Conecuh72914
Lamar7258
Bullock70919
Perry6987
Wilcox65518
Sumter59522
Greene44518
Choctaw43519
Coosa3824
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