Air pollution’s impact on health far worse than previously thought: study

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Short-term exposure to air pollution has been linked to a staggering number of hospitalizations for numerous health issues — more than previously thought, new research suggests.

Pollution can hurt our bodies and even our wallets, researchers from Harvard University noted.

“The health dangers and economic impacts of air pollution are significantly larger than previously understood,” co-author Yaguang Wei said in a press release. Wei is a doctoral candidate at the university’s school of public health.

Air quality was linked to everything from urinary tract infections, to skin and tissue infections, to heart failure, researchers reported. 

More than 95 million health insurance claims between 2000 and 2012 in the U.S. were examined by the team, focusing on patients 65 or older enrolled in the Medicare program.

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Wei and colleagues were able to determine air quality levels for each patient in the two days prior to their hospitalization.

They examined levels of a specific type of air pollution called fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, that’s known for being so small it can penetrate organs like your lungs and cause serious health issues.

This kind of air pollution is produced from sources like cars, power plants and even forest fires. 

By analyzing patient’s zip codes, researchers were able to determine PM2.5 levels in their neighbourhoods. 

The study shows that even a small rise in PM2.5 over two days was associated with an annual increase of more than 5,500 hospitalizations, 30,000 days in the hospital and over 600 deaths for myriad illnesses related to air pollution.

“We found that several prevalent but rarely studied disease groups were associated with PM2.5,” which include electrolyte disorders, kidney failure, Parkinson’s disease and diabetes, the study reported. 

Even when PM2.5 levels were below guidelines set out by the World Health Organization (WHO), the results remained consistent, the study found.

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The rise in pollution also correlated with US$100-million in yearly inpatient and post-care costs, as well as $6.5 billion in “value of statistical life,” which outlines the economic value of deaths. 

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UBC report says even “safe” levels of pollution are bad for health

“These results raise awareness of the continued importance of assessing the impact of air pollution exposure,” co-author Francesca Dominici said in a statement.

The “strong link” between PM2.5 and multiple diseases means standards by the WHO and the National Ambient Air Quality Standards in the U.S. need to be updated, she said.

A 2018 report by Environment and Climate Change Canada found that PM2.5 concentrations have remained below Canadian Ambient Air Quality Standards since 2002. 

Stricter annual standards were introduced in 2013, which is 28 micrograms per cubic metre, slightly higher than the WHO standard of 25 micrograms.

WHO air quality guidelines are under revision, and a new version will be released next year, according to its website. 

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The Harvard study is in line with research published earlier this year that revealed air pollution impacts nearly every cell in the body, damaging organs and being associated with everything from fertility problems to dementia.

Global News reported last year that more than 7,000 Canadians had died from chronic exposure to air pollution in 2015. 

The health impacts of climate change are expected to continue to create more issues for the general population, including allergies, respiratory illnesses, Lyme disease and cardiovascular impacts.

It’s clear that Canadians need to be wary of even low-level pollution, Christopher Carlsten, director of the Air Pollution Lab at the University of British Columbia, previously told Global News.

“At these relatively clean levels that we enjoy in Toronto and Vancouver, small changes in air pollution levels can lead to major changes in health effects.”

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