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Study Finds Deterioration in US Air Quality

Increased Pollution Linked to Nearly 10,000 Deaths

The Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, shown obscured in smoke in November 2018, after the disastrous Camp Fire occurred north of Sacramento. US Interior Secretary at the time, Ryan Zinke, said wildfires in California in 2018 released roughly the same amount of carbon emissions as are produced each year to provide electricity to the state. © 2018 Eric Risberg/AP Images

Air pollution is on the rise in the United States after steadily declining from 2009 to 2016, according to new research published this month. The study, based on data from 1.8 million daily readings of air monitors in 653 counties across the US, also finds that increased air pollution was associated with 9,700 premature deaths between 2016 and 2018. These findings exemplify what amount to serious threats to the rights to health, life, and a healthy environment.

The working paper was published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan US-based research organization. The study attributes the 5.5 percent increase in fine particulate pollution since 2013 to factors including more frequent wildfires and decreased enforcement of the Clean Air Act, the federal law designed to control national air pollution. In addition to increased deaths, fine particulate pollution has been linked to asthma, heart and lung disease, strokes, lung cancer, and respiratory infections.

The authors highlighted a dramatic decline in penalties for violations of the Clean Air Act. Between 2016 and 2018, there was an approximately 40 percent decline in recorded 113d violations, the most common enforcement action that results in a fine or penalty. While the study does not conclusively tie this decline to inadequate regulatory oversight alone, it is worrisome when combined with the Trump administration’s overall lack of environmental enforcement and the increase in US air pollution since 2016.

Industrial activities, which have increased in the US since 2016, pollute the air and contribute to climate change. Climate change can increase the risk of wildfires that further pollute air and emit toxins harmful to human health. This link, which the Trump Administration has acknowledged, illustrates a concerning point: air pollution can contribute to climate change while the effects of climate change can contribute to and exacerbate the health risks posed by air pollution.

Trump has made cutting regulations that protect the environment and reduce carbon emissions a cornerstone of his presidency. Human Rights Watch has documented cases where these rollbacks hurt efforts to reduce air and water pollution. For example, the repeal of the Stream Protection Rule directly impacts coal communities’ access to safe water and the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ongoing weakening of rules around coal ash, a toxic byproduct of burning coal, threatens rights to water, health, and a safe environment.

This new research is yet another critical reminder that the public pays for poor environmental regulation and the impacts of climate change with their health, and sometimes, their lives.

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