Most city residents breathing unhealthy air

The vast majority of city dwellers around the world — 86 percent, or 2.5 billion people — are breathing air that has levels of fine particulate matter that are higher than what the World Health Organization recommends, according to a recent study

“The majority of the world's urban population still live in areas with unhealthy levels of PM2.5,” lead author Veronica Southerland, of George Washington University in Washington, D.C., said in a statement

That pollution — which is associated with the burning of fossil fuels — was responsible for 1.8 million additional deaths in 2019, according to the study, which was published in The Lancet Planetary Health journal. 

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The burden of pollution falls particularly hard on children, according to another study, also published in the Lancet, that found that the pollutant nitrogen dioxide, or NO2 — a common byproduct of burning fossil fuels in cars and power plants ­­— has led to almost 2 million additional cases of childhood asthma. 

There was some good news. Researchers noted that efforts to clean up roadways and industrial sites in the U.S. and Europe had led the share of childhood asthma caused by NO2 to fall from 20 percent to 16 percent over the two decades between 2000 and 2019. 

“The findings suggest that clean air must be a critical part of strategies aimed at keeping children healthy,” study co-author Susan Anenberg of George Washington University said in a statement

But fossil fuel pollution causes death and damage even at levels deemed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency, the European Union and the World Health Organization, according to a third study out this month in the Lancet.  

PM2.5 refers to particles — often thrown off by combustion — that are 20 to 30 times smaller than a human hair, which allows them to bypass the hairs and mucous membranes that the body uses to protect itself against contaminants, penetrating deep into the bloodstream and leading to lung, vascular and heart disease.  

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That study looked at the impacts posed by breathing in low levels of nitrous dioxide, ozone, fine particulates and black carbon — all common byproducts of burning fossil fuels in cars and power plants. It found that long-term exposure to these compounds was correlated with higher rates of death from lung cancer and respiratory disease. 

Taken together, the studies “underscore the urgency of improving urban air quality and reducing reliance of fossil fuels in and around our cities,” said Robert Hughes of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, in a statement

“While the specific policies to do this vary from city to city, a common theme is that we need to radically cut down on the combustion of fossil fuels everywhere; put simply, we need to 'stop burning stuff,' especially where we live,” Hughes said, specifically, by moving away from using fossil fuels for home heating and to power electric utilities and transportation.