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New Maps Show Where Air Pollution Wreaks Most Damage In The U.S.

Thomas Millot

Air pollution triggers the premature death of more than 100,000 people each year — around the population of Cambridge, Massachusetts. That’s according to new research from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last week.

The scientists looked at air pollution in a new way: instead of determining which areas generated the greatest emissions, they calculated where people suffered the greatest public health damages associated with exposure. It wasn’t always the neighbors of smoke-belching power plants and busy highways who were most hard-hit.

Credit Andrew Goodkind
Scientists calculated the economic cost of air pollution from microscopic particles (called fine particulate matter, or PM 2.5) and other chemicals.

More than half of premature deaths were linked to energy consumption from activities like driving cars and burning coal. But growing food was responsible for another 15 percent of public health damages, according to the study.

Most air pollution from agriculture comes from ammonia produced from livestock, according to Jason Hill who studies food and energy production at the University of Minnesota and is one of the study's authors.

“Essentially manure. And also from the use of nitrogen fertilizers in crop production,” he said.

The authors also found that the greatest public health damages weren’t necessarily the closest to the source of pollution. While a third of public health impacts were felt within five miles of emission sources, a quarter of damages occurred over 150 miles away.

“The wind carries pollution from one location to the other,” Hill said. “And, of course, people breathe that in.”

Hill hopes the research will improve how policy-makers regulate emissions. "You want to focus your efforts on those sources that are the most damaging," he said. "Rather than focus on those sources that emit the most."


Elsa Partan is the producer of Living Lab Radio. Heather Goldstone is executive producer.