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Science Wednesday: OnAir: Breathe Cleaner, Live Longer

2010 January 13

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

On my second day of work, I was asked to find a Stephen Colbert video.

I found it on the Comedy Central web site

The subject of Colbert’s mockery is actually one of the most significant air studies recently published. It presents evidence, for the first time, that breathing cleaner air actually makes people live longer.

A 2009 study by Arden Pope, Majid Ezzati, and Doug Dockery published in the New England Journal of Medicine shows that cleaner air in the U.S. has increased life expectancy by an average of 5 months.

Over the past few decades, EPA has regulated air pollution because various scientific studies have determined that it is harmful to human health. As particles emitted into the air have been gradually reduced, pollutant levels in air have significantly decreased.

But despite the obviously cleaner air, it has been extremely difficult to confirm the resulting health improvements. Couldn’t better health also be attributed to decreased cigarette smoking, better eating habits and health care, or a variety of other changes?

Pope, Ezzati, and Dockery—an EPA PM Research Center grantee—matched air monitoring data with life expectancy data spanning three decades and 51 cities across the US. Using advanced statistical models, they accounted for any other factors that might also affect life span (like cigarette smoking) in order to see the effects of air quality alone.

Their results showed that an increase in life expectancy of 5 months was directly attributable to an average reduction of 6 micrograms per cubic meter of fine particle air pollution between 1980 and 2000.

The implication of the study—that EPA air regulations have directly and substantially lengthened human lives—is a triumph for both regulatory agencies and researchers world wide because it shows that air research and policy really do work.

Stephen Colbert isn’t the only one to recognize the importance of this finding. News of the study was reported in the Washington PostNew York Times, and in an entire segment on NBC Nightly News.

I spoke to Doug Dockery, investigator of the study and scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health, to get his take on the impact of this finding.

“There is an important positive message here,” he said.

“Efforts to reduce particulate air pollution concentrations in the United States over the past 20 years have led to substantial and measurable improvements in life expectancy.”

About the Author: Becky Fried is a student contractor with EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research, part of the Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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9 Responses leave one →
  1. Scott permalink
    January 13, 2010

    If you buy this, then we could eliminate all industry and cars and we could live much, much longer. I don’t buy it.

  2. Al Bannet permalink
    January 16, 2010

    As more coal fired power plants and jet planes are constructed to serve our growing population there is less clean air available. The atomobile industry is converting to electric cars, but there cannot be enough wind and solar power to serve our relentlessly growing population. Here is the solution: If we peacefully reduce our human population by about half, there will be plenty of resources for everyone. But life is driven by instinct to grow and grow and grow forever, or until disaster strikes, which will probably be a toxic plague of various pollution-related diseases, already beginning as cancer rates are increasing around the World. Breath deep.

  3. Al Bannet permalink
    January 17, 2010

    Becky Fried:

    Would you like to explain how air quality could possibly be improving when every year new coal fired power plants are built to supply elecricity to the growing population of consumers, and every year more jet planes are built to transport those consumers all over the overcrowded World? If you don’t understand what I am saying, think about the peculiar fact that the day after the 9/11 terrorist attack when all air traffic was ordered to land until further notice, many people marveled at how suddenly the air seemed so much fresher and enjoyable to breathe. Obviously, people get used to air pollution and don’t realize it is causing all sorts of chronic ailments, you too apparently, although with access to scientific equipment, you should know better — or is it that you do indeed know that what you are claiming is patently false?

  4. Michael E. Bailey permalink
    January 18, 2010

    This is good news. But there are a few in Congress and a few in big national and multinational corporations who will hate it and say it happened because of increased regulation and that the regulations to improve health and the air cost money. The health and environmental improvements are ignored by this small group whoe only concern on this planet is to worship their pagan God money. The air improvement and resulting life expectancy improvement has been a hard thought victory against overwhelming odds. Best wishes, Michael E. Bailey.

  5. wade harter permalink
    January 25, 2010

    There are many factors effecting human health. If clean air is the dominant then those of the Roman Empire days should have lived several hundred years without coal burning boilers and cars. There is a history book listing people living up to 700 years. Then life cycles degenerated back to the mid 40’s (as was Pakinstan 20 years ago). Now with all this pollution it is over 70. Why are some always trying to fool the masses?

  6. Jerhed Hemlope permalink
    March 8, 2010

    If you buy this, then we could eliminate all industry and cars and we could live much, much longer. Im not drinking the kool aid either. Why are some always trying to fool the masses?

  7. Shallow Breather permalink
    May 4, 2010

    Well, in an attempt to try to preserve enough oxygen for my kids and my grandkids, I have converted to breathing less air, so in turn there will be more for my kids and grandkids. The sad thing is, is that Al Bannet is right. More reproducing more products are needed, more products, more pollution. Studies show that more pollution causes high rates in cancer and others diseases. It also shows that there were less diseases and sicknesses in the earlier years of human life, why is that? Less consumption of our resources and less pollution. I’m not saying “lets all forget life as we know it and become cavemen.” What I am saying is that we have smart enough people in the world that can come up with more energy efficient cars, heating, water purifying, Ect. that we all could live longer and benefit from it. If we have come up with everthing that we have had today, why can’t we come up with more nature nice technology? Food for thought.

  8. jerome permalink
    October 29, 2010

    it would be best if we lessen the use of harmful substances that causes the oxygen production to be limited. it is because of over using of resources that lead to this kind of problem. it would be like losing your toothbrush and you cant buy yourself another one. we need to be more conscious nowadays.

  9. Electronic Cigarettes permalink
    August 15, 2013

    The invention of breathing cleaner air can help add the lifespan of the people. We all want to live longer and since we don’t see how dirty the air we breath, why not make sure its safety with this nice innovative invention. We need to be meticulous in today’s modern world just to make sure that we would not be affected with the wrong doings which pollutes our environment especially the air we breath.

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