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Cleaner air, longer lives

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The air we breathe contains particulate matter from a range of natural and human-related sources. Particulate matter is responsible for thousands of premature deaths in the United States each year, but legislation from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is credited with significantly decreasing this number, as well as the amount of particulate matter in the atmosphere. However, the EPA may not be getting the full credit they deserve: New research from MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) proposes that the EPA’s legislation may have saved even more lives than initially reported.

The air we breathe contains particulate matter from a range of natural and human-related sources. Particulate matter is responsible for thousands of premature deaths in the United States each year, but legislation from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is credited with significantly decreasing this number, as well as the amount of particulate matter in the atmosphere. However, the EPA may not be getting the full credit they deserve: New research from MIT’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) proposes that the EPA’s legislation may have saved even more lives than initially reported.

“In the United States, the number of premature deaths associated with exposure to outdoor particulate matter exceeds the number of car accident fatalities every year. This highlights the vital role that the EPA plays in reducing the exposure of people living in the United States to harmful pollutants,” says Colette Heald, associate professor in CEE and the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences.

The EPA’s 1970 Clean Air Act and amendments in 1990 address the health effects of particulate matter, specifically by regulating emissions of air pollutants and promoting research into cleaner alternatives. In 2011 the EPA announced that the legislation was responsible for a considerable decrease in particulate matter in the atmosphere, estimating that over 100,000 lives were saved every year from 2000 to 2010. However, the report did not consider organic aerosol, a major component of atmospheric particulate matter, to be a large contributor to the decline in particulate matter during this period. Organic aerosol is emitted directly from fossil fuel combustion (e.g. vehicles), residential burning, and wildfires but is also chemically produced in the atmosphere from the oxidation of both natural and anthropogenically emitted hydrocarbons.

Read more at Massachusetts Institute of Technology