“The science keeps moving on, and the list of maladies pegged to dirty air continues to grow.”
Five quotes—you could pick many more—from Jonathan Mingle's large New York Review of Books assessment of the current thinking on air pollution, a "global health emergency" that the article proves in detail.
Scientists keep learning that there is no part of the body that these particles cannot reach, and no phase of life, from gestation to advanced age, they do not touch. Last year, researchers found inhaled soot particles in the placentas of five women who gave birth in London hospitals.
A crucial lesson in each of these books is that, just when officials think they’ve solved the problem, it rears its head again. London tackled coal burning and relocated industry after the Great Smog, only to have its air fouled by noxious diesel vehicle exhaust decades later. The 1956 law gave Londoners smokeless zones; last April, Mayor Sadiq Khan, who in his 2016 campaign declared that the city faced a “public health emergency” from air pollution, announced a new “ultra low emission zone for central London.”
One of the most striking of these quasi-experiments in recent years is from China. Using the Huai River as a dividing line between colder and warmer parts of the country, from the 1950s to 1980 the Chinese government provided free coal for household heating north of the river and no subsidy to those living south of it. Researchers at the University of Chicago looked at mortality data in ninety Chinese cities and found a shocking result: those living in the north had their lives cut short by 5.5 years on average due to “cardiorespiratory mortality” from exposure to levels of particulate pollution that were 55 percent higher than in the air of the south. They estimated that the well-intentioned policy destroyed 2.5 billion life-years.
On April 3, in its annual State of the Air report, the American Lung Association reported that 141 million Americans live with unhealthy levels of ozone and particle pollution, an increase of seven million from 2018. It attributed much of the rise to the effects of climate change. Even Trump’s EPA acknowledges in a new report that “most of the northern half of the country will experience greater air pollution because of climate change.”
New evidence seems to ratchet only in one direction: revising today’s global death toll of air pollution upward, and widening the scope and variety of its damage. A recent study in the European Heart Journal concluded that ambient air pollution is responsible for 8.8 million premature deaths per year—more than double previous estimates, and 1.5 million more than smoking causes.