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Air pollution kills thousands of Americans every year even at the levels currently allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency. That is the conclusion of a huge new Harvard study published today by The New England Journal of Medicine. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein reports.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Our air has been getting cleaner for decades. But Francesca Dominici of the Harvard Chan School of Public Health wanted to know if it should be even cleaner.
FRANCESCA DOMINICI: We wanted to do the largest possible study for estimating health effects of air pollution on mortality.
STEIN: So Dominici and her colleagues analyzed death rates collected from about 60 million Medicare patients every year for more than a decade and very precise satellite data that let them measure the impact of very low levels of air pollution down to individual ZIP codes.
DOMINICI: We are now providing bulletproof evidence that we are breathing harmful air. Our air is contaminated.
STEIN: By very tiny particles of soot from smokestacks, tailpipes and other sources. According to Dominici's analysis, cutting that so-called fine particulate matter by just one point below the EPA's current standards would save 12,000 lives each year.
DOMINICI: It's very strong, compelling evidence that currently the safety standards are not safe enough.
STEIN: And air pollution appears to be especially dangerous for African-Americans and poor people. Blacks, for example, have three times the risk as the general population. No one knows why, but Dominici has some theories.
DOMINICI: People of color tend to be sicker and be more affected to disease and also to potentially living in area with a higher pollution level.
STEIN: Taken together, the results indicate that more should be done to push air pollution levels as low as possible.
DOMINICI: The take-home message of this study is that we should really do whatever we can to make sure that we allow everyone, regardless (laughter) of where they live and their social economic status - I think it's the responsibility of the government in making sure that our air is clean.
STEIN: Jeffrey Drazen is the top editor at The New England Journal of Medicine. He thinks the research is so important that he personally helped write an editorial accompanying the study.
JEFFEREY DRAZEN: What these data are telling us is that even with our current standards, if we cleaned up the air more, we could save lives. So anything that we did that pushed things in the opposite direction that gave us dirtier air not only would be unpleasant. It's going to kill a lot of people.
STEIN: And Drazen says the Trump administration's policies would make the air dirtier by cutting the EPA, pushing coal and abandoning the fight against global warming.
DRAZEN: If you look at what's happening in the Trump administration, the general direction is not to clean up the air. So this is a warning that if we don't clean up the air, the people who are going to bear that burden are the poor and the disadvantaged more than the rich and well-off.
STEIN: But not everyone agrees. Scott Segal is a Washington lawyer who worked for the energy industry and has advised the Trump administration. He says the new study is flawed, and he argues cutting air pollution even further would come with big costs.
SCOTT SEGAL: When we have very expensive environmental rules, they in and of themselves can adversely affect public health by increasing the cost of medical care, by suppressing economic growth. And you've - I'm sure you've heard the expression that, you know, wealthier is healthier - and discouraging the amount of resources we have available for more serious health threats.
STEIN: The EPA did not respond to NPR's request for comment. Rob Stein, NPR News.
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