Equilibrium & Sustainability

Curbing energy-related air pollutants could save 50,000 US lives, $600B each year: study

Traffic is seen due to the I-66 widening project near Fairfax, Va., on June 2
Greg Nash

Eliminating air pollutants generated by energy-related activities in the U.S. could prevent more than 50,000 premature deaths and save the economy more than $600 billion each year, a new study has found.

The study, published in GeoHealth on Monday, explored the potential gains of removing the fine particles that are emitted into the atmosphere through electricity generation, transportation, industrial operations, heating and cooking. These activities, the authors noted, are also major contributors to climate change, since they burn fossil fuels that release greenhouse gases — in addition to generating fine particulate matter.

Exposure to fine particulate matter — particles with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less — can contribute to health issues like heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer and lower respiratory infections that can shorten life expectancy, according to the study.

The scientists determined that cutting these pollutants would save about 53,200 lives annually, while boosting the economy with about $608 billion from avoided health care costs and loss of life.

“Our work provides a sense of the scale of the air quality health benefits that could accompany deep decarbonization of the U.S. energy system,” lead author Nick Mailloux, a graduate student at University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, said in a statement.

“Shifting to clean energy sources can provide enormous benefit for public health in the near term while mitigating climate change in the longer term,” he added.

Mailloux and his colleagues incorporated a model from the Environmental Protection Agency to calculate the health benefits that would arise by completely eradicating energy-related emissions of fine particulate matter, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. The latter two sets of compounds can form particulate matter once released into the atmosphere, they explained.

Breaking down the major sources of these pollutants, the authors found that cutting residential and commercial fuel use — such as heating and cooking — and on-road vehicle particulate emissions would lead to the greatest reduction in premature deaths. 

The authors also explored what would happen if specific regions of the country were to act independently to reduce these emissions — and found that effects could vary widely, based on regional differences in energy use and population size, according to the study.

They found that on average, slightly more than two-thirds of the health benefits associated with reducing particulate emissions would remain in the region where the cuts occurred. Five of the 10 regions would retain more than three-quarters of the benefits from removing particulate emissions, while just two would retain less than half of the benefits, according to the study.

The Southwest region — which includes Arizona, California and Nevada — would preserve 95 percent of the benefits if it alone chose to eliminate fine particle emissions, the study found.

In the Mountain region, however, only 32 percent of the benefit would remain in the participating states, according to the study.

“This is partly because there are large population centers downwind of the Mountain region that would also benefit,” Mailloux said.

The Great Plains, meanwhile, would get twice as much benefit from nationwide efforts than if the region acted alone, the scientists found.

“The more that states and regions can coordinate their emissions reductions efforts, the greater the benefit they can provide to us all,” Mailloux added.

The researchers said that they hope their findings — which demonstrate near-term payoffs of such efforts — motivate more action on climate change.

Jonathan Patz, senior author of the study and a professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Nelson Institute, stressed that the study supports recent calls from the United Nations “to transform the world’s energy economy.”

“My hope is that our research findings might spur decision-makers grappling with the necessary move away from fossil fuels, to shift their thinking from burdens to benefits,” Patz added.

–Updated at 12:01 p.m.

Tags Air pollution particulate matter
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