Southern Californians (an estimated 22 million people) are at greater risk of death from the impacts of fine particulate matter in the air versus those living in other parts of the United States, according to the results of a study printed last month in Risk Analysis, an international journal produced by the Society for Risk Analysis.
Particulate matter is composed of extremely small particles – a width 30x less than human hair – that might include mineral dust, organic matter, black carbon, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide. It’s created, for example, from a range of material from vehicle and power plant emissions to coal- and wood- burning fires.
While the death risk to Southern Californians comes from particulates, those living in the Midwest don’t get any breaks either. Midwesterners are at greater risk of death due to high levels of ozone. “Unhealthy forms of ozone are created when nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) react in the presence of sunlight; ozone is typically linked to byproducts from industrial facilities and electric utilities, car exhaust, gas vapors and chemical solvents,” explains a summary of the study findings.
The study assessed air quality and used different methods for risk estimates, so there is some variation in analyzing what the impacts are, depending on approach. But what seems incontrovertible is that the “impacts of air pollution are substantial, consistent with previous studies estimating air pollution mortality and morbidity.” Looking at 2005 air quality data, the study found that between 130,000 and 340,000 premature deaths could be linked to particulate matter and ozone.
Additionally, the Environmental Protection Agency says that fine particulate matter and ozone produce millions of incidences of asthma, bronchitis, respiratory problems and school absences among children. Among other age groups, the particulates in the air make upper respiratory problems worse and increase heart attacks. In a separate study just published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, long-term exposure to particulate matter is related to faster cognitive decline among older women, as well.
Such studies should, of course, raise quite a few red flags. We’ll see how they influence policymakers on tightening air quality standards, not just in the U.S., but worldwide. What we most likely will NOT see is any connection between poor air quality and too many people. As with most other issues involving degradation of our air, water and land resources, at the root is continuing growth of the human population. More people use more and more resources, placing more and more demands on the natural environment.
Better and cleaner manufacturing processes, more sustainable agricultural practices, cleaner vehicles and smaller footprints all are good, and all are areas where we want to see continuous improvement and can encourage business and government to do their parts. But assuming we could even get buy-in and implementation of new technologies and more sustainable practices across the board, could they completely mitigate for human overpopulation? And would they all create better outcomes? The law of unintended consequences seems always in play.
When reading a study such as the one in Risk Analysis or the many other, seemingly endless, stories on endangered species, loss of natural habitat or degradation of a natural environment, we – all of us who are concerned about the impacts of human overpopulation – should consider if there is a people problem at the root of the issue or the story. If so, we should then comment on what we’re reading (online posts, letters to the editors), share our concerns about overpopulation with friends and colleagues, and contact our local, state and national legislators to build awareness of the negative impacts of too much growth. The need to rebuild awareness of the impacts of overpopulation is great.