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Link Between Air Pollution and Increased Risk of Death

In what is believed to be the largest, most detailed study of its kind in the United States, scientists at New York University Langone Medical Center and elsewhere have confirmed that tiny chemical particles in the air we breathe are linked to an overall increase in risk of death.

A release from the university notes that the researchers say this kind of air pollution involves particles so small they are invisible to the human eye (at less than one ten-thousandth of an inch in diameter, or no more than 2.5 micrometers across).

In a report on the findings, published online in September 2015 in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, the scientists conclude that even minuscule increases in the amount of these particles (by 10 micrograms per cubic meter of air, for example) lead to an overall increased risk of death from all causes by 3 percent — and roughly a 10 percent increase in risk of death due to heart disease. For nonsmokers, the risk increase rises to 27 percent in cases of death due to respiratory disease.

The release quotes lead study investigator and health epidemiologist George Thurston, ScD, a professor of population health and environmental medicine at NYU Langone, as saying, “Our data add to a growing body of evidence that particulate matter is really harmful to health, increasing overall mortality, mostly deaths from cardiovascular disease, as well as deaths from respiratory disease in nonsmokers. Our study is particularly notable because all the data used in our analysis comes from government- and independently held sources.”

According to Thurston, fine particles can contribute to the development of potentially fatal heart and lung diseases because they slip past the body’s defenses and can be absorbed deep into the lungs and bloodstream. They are not sneezed or coughed out the way larger natural particles, like airborne soil and sand, are removed from the body’s airways. Moreover, Thurston says, fine particles are usually made of harmful chemicals such as arsenic, selenium, and mercury, and can also transport gaseous pollutants, including sulfur and nitrogen oxides, with them into the lungs.

For their research, Thurston and his colleagues evaluated data from a detailed health and diet survey conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). The NIH-AARP study involved 566,000 male and female volunteers, ages 50 to 71, from California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and the metropolitan areas of Atlanta and Detroit.


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