The list of diseases linked to air pollution is growing

As governments decide what to do about air quality, studies connect an array of health problems to dirty air

DONORA, PA — “To the residents of Donora, Pa., a mill town in a crook of the Monongahela River, the daily haze from nearby zinc and steel plants was the price of keeping their families fed. But on October 27, 1948, the city awoke to an unusually sooty sky, even for Donora. The next day, the high school quarterbacks couldn’t see their teammates well enough to complete a single pass.

The town was engulfed in smog for five days, until a storm finally swept the pollution out of the valley. By then, more than one-third of the population had fallen ill and 20 people were dead. Another 50 perished in the following months.

After the Donora tragedy, the federal government began to clamp down on industries that release pollutants into the air. Environmental advocates in the coming decades fought for, and won, tighter regulations. As a result, combined emissions of six common air pollutants have dropped by about 70 percent nationwide since the 1970 passage of the Clean Air Act, which regulates U.S. emissions of hazardous air pollutants. In 35 major U.S. cities, the total number of days with unhealthy air has fallen by almost two-thirds just since 2000. “It’s one of the great success stories of public health,” says Joel Kaufman, a physician and epidemiologist at the University of Washington School of Public Health in Seattle.

Our bodies feel the difference. One study, reported in JAMA last year, followed 4,602 children in Southern California between 1993 and 2012 to see how lung health correlated with three common air pollutants. As levels of ozone, nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter fell over time, so did the number of children who reported a daily cough, persistent congestion and other symptoms of irritated lungs. At the start of the study, 48 percent of children with asthma had reported bronchitis symptoms in the previous year. In communities with the greatest drop in pollutants during the study period, bronchitis prevalence fell by as much as 30 percent in children with asthma.”

— Laura Biel, Science News

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