Comprehensive air pollution study finds impact on health has been underestimated

The impact of air pollution in creating health problems may be greater than previously believed, according to fresh and comprehensive research on the topic.

A significant new study, covered by the BMJ, has analysed more than 95 million US hospital admissions and compared them with the level of fine particulate matter (specifically PM2.5) present on the day before those hospital admissions.

It found that even short term exposure to PM2.5 (fine particulate matter of diameter less than 2.5 microns) was found to have a significant impact – so significant that the study has led to calls that air pollution guidelines should be reviewed. PM2.5 is “ubiquitous, emanating especially from transport and combustion sources”.

2,050 extra admissions

The study not only confirmed links previously found between short term PM2.5 exposure to heightened risk of respiratory, cardiovascular, diabetes and Parkinson’s disease, but it also found that many more diseases were closely associated to the pollution type. Septicaemia, fluid and electrolyte disorders, renal failure and infections of the urinary tract (there’s a fuller list on the BMJ site for the not-faint-of-heart).

A one micogram increase was associated with 2,050 extra hospital admissions, 12,216 days in hospital and $31 million (£24 million) in care costs – through diseases not previously associated with PM2.5.

In short, current figures for impact of PM2.5 have significantly understated the case.

Bearing in mind the study focused on just one particular type of pollution – PM2.5 – that understatement of the impact of air pollution on health – may be greater still.

Air pollution dips when car use is reduced – the annual road closures for RideLondon regularly provide evidence to this effect.

Cycle advocacy bodies have made multiple calls for politicians to step up clean air plans and allow health experts a say in transport policy. While Brexit and now the General Election have been eating up valuable time, 2019 has undoubtedly seen an upswing of media coverage on the impact of pollution on the planet. As the evidence mounts about the underestimated impact of pollution on health, we might even get to a tipping point where policy intervenes.

There’s considerably more detail on the new study in the BMJ.

Hat-tip: The Guardian