Is Air Pollution Killing Millions? Not in the United States of America

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Every so often, the media likes to warn us that we're all dying from air pollution.

Headlines like, "Air Pollution 'Kills 7 Million People a Year'" are common and repeated like a morose version of the childhood game "Telephone." Predictably, that leads to calls for tighter environmental regulations, and anyone who disagrees is labeled an Earth-hating, cancer-loving industry shill.

Now a team of researchers from the University of Chicago has created a map that depicts the average number of years of life per person that could be saved if countries adopted the World Health Organization's air pollution standards. For particulate matter that is 10 microns (micrometers) in size or less (known as PM10), the WHO standard is an annual average of 20 micrograms (μg) per cubic meter of air (m3); for even smaller particles known as PM2.5, the standard is 10 μg/m3.

As one might expect, air pollution in countries like China has a substantially negative impact on public health. Indeed, the authors estimate that the average Chinese person's life could be extended by 3.5 years if the air was cleaned up.

Now, compare that to the United States. With the exception of central and southern California and the upper Midwest, the U.S. has extremely clean air. Most places in the United States would not benefit from tighter air pollution standards. That is so counterintuitive and contrary to what is printed in the media, that it is worth repeating: Most places in the United States would not benefit from tighter air pollution standards.

If the entire country adopted tighter air pollution standards, the authors estimate that the average American's life would be extended by 0.13 years. That's one and a half months. Even if tighter regulations were employed at the local level (e.g., only in California), it's unclear whether there would be any substantial public health benefit. In the worst parts of California, cleaner air would only increase average life expectancy by 0.9 to 1.2 years.

These results shouldn't be surprising. According to the World Health Organization, the U.S. has some of the cleanest air in the world, nearly as good as the air in Canada and Scandinavia. Air in the U.S. is also far cleaner than that of continental Europe. (The map below depicts PM2.5 air pollution.)

Before any policy is implemented, smart, non-agenda-driven regulators and policymakers should ask, "What are the costs, and what are the benefits?" Because air pollution is already very low in the U.S., any policy that lowers it further at a substantial monetary cost is probably not worthwhile.

So, the next time you read scare stories about how some politician or industry wants to pollute our air, don't believe it. All Americans want clean air, and the good news is we already have it. You can breathe a sigh of relief.