People living in metropolitan areas with the worst ozone pollution, aka smog, face at least a 30 percent greater chance of dying from respiratory illnesses than residents of the least polluted cities, a new study has found.
The study, published in this week's New England Journal of Medicine, is the first nationwide look at the long-term health effects of exposure to ozone, and the first to distinguish ozone's impact from the harmful effects of inhaling fine particulate matter, the tiny particles of pollutants emitted by factories, cars, and power plants. You need a subscription to read the report, but can read the abstract here.
Researchers looked at nearly a half million people over 18 years. They found that in Riverside, California, the city with the worst smog levels in the country through 2000, the chances of dying from lung disease were as much as 50 percent greater than if you lived in a place with no ozone pollution. Los Angeles came in a close second, with a 43 percent higher risk.
Here in the Northeast, where smog is not as bad, the risk of dying from lung disease was 27 percent higher in the Washington area and 25 percent higher around New York City. For some reason, the study didn't look at Baltimore separately, though the summer air here has tended to be as bad or even a bit worse than in the DC environs. While you may wonder why that is, given the heavier traffic around the nation's capital, the pollutants that form ozone from vehicle exhaust, power plants and the like tend to drift to the northeast.
The EPA has set health-based standards for ozone pollution based on eight-hour average exposures, but as the Los Angeles Times notes, more than 300 counties where more than 100 million people live are out of compliance. Though EPA tightened its smog standards slightly last year, it ignored urgings from experts to set even more protective standards. This study could add pressure on EPA to revisit that decision.
(Photo of Los Angeles skyline: Getty Images)