Air pollution in the US has had a long history as a factor in premature mortality. Early on, as America’s industrial revolution catapulted the country into the 20th Century, air pollution choked its streets and citizens. By October 1948, Donora, Pa., was enveloped in a lethal haze with nearly half of the town’s 14,000 residents experiencing severe respiratory or cardiovascular problems over the course of five days and the death toll climbed to nearly 40 people. However, America took action to both understand the problem and how to fix it and on December 2, 1970 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established and Congress passed the Clean Air Act Amendments which led to the establishment of the nation’s air quality standards and a stark reduction in air pollution related deaths.
Today, a new study by researchers at MIT has found that more than half of all air-quality-related early deaths in the United States result from out of state emissions in American communities. This study highlights a former blindspot in US emission standards and regulation.
As the US works to understand and curb harmful emissions, tracking how pollution from one state affects another has historically been tricky and computationally difficult. However, as scientist’s tool belt has improved we are gaining a better understanding of the effects of one state’s pollutants on its neighbours. “We have this multidimensional matrix that characterises the impact of a state’s emissions of a given economic sector of a given pollutant at a given time, on any other state’s health outcomes,” says study leader Steven Barrett, an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT. “We can figure out, for example, how much NOx emissions from road transportation in Arizona in July affects human health in Texas, and we can do those calculations instantly.”