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Deadly levels of air pollution come from unexpected sources, study finds

Researchers are primarily concerned with the effect on consumers’ health

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Photo (c) Tetiana Lazunova - Getty Images
Studies continue to emphasize the health risks associated with rising levels of air pollution, including the threat these emissions pose to consumers’ longevity

Now, a new study conducted by researchers from the University of Minnesota found that the threats to consumers’ health only continue to mount. However, extreme levels of air pollution could be coming from sources many haven’t considered. 

“Essentially we’re asking, ‘what’s killing people and how do we stop it?’” said researcher Sumil Thakrar. “People usually think of power plants and cars, but nowadays, livestock and wood stoves are as big of a problem.” 

Where are the emissions coming from?

To understand what kinds of emissions are putting consumers’ health at the greatest risk, the researchers analyzed data from the Environmental Protection Agency. This allowed them to track emissions levels, types, sources, and overall health risk.

“Targeting particularly damaging air pollution sources is a more efficient, and likely more effective, way of regulating air quality,” said researcher Jason Hill. “Think of springing a leak in your boat while out fishing. Why fret too much about how much water is coming in when what you really should be doing is plugging the hole?” 

Fine particulate matter, which is commonly notated as PM2.5, was the biggest threat to consumers’ health that the researchers discovered in this study. However, this type of emission was identified in high levels from sources that many haven’t considered before. 

For example, the researchers learned that ammonia contains high volumes of PM2.5. The chemical is used widely in popular household cleaners, but it can also be used in fertilizer and other agricultural processes. Despite the known risks linked to ammonia, the chemical remains easily accessible and widely used nationwide. 

Consumers are exposed to these fumes in other ways too. Simple household tasks like cleaning can create emissions that can be harmful to breathe in, but a dusty construction site can lead to similar risks. Like Thakrar mentioned, while traffic and fossil fuels certainly contribute to these rising emissions levels, the source of some of the highest levels of air pollution come from ordinary places that aren’t usually considered by the general public.

Exposure to PM2.5 is particularly dangerous. It’s not only responsible for thousands of deaths each year, but it can increase the risk for any number of health conditions, including lung cancer and heart attacks, among several others. To see real change and protect consumers’ health, the researchers explained that regulation of these emissions is a crucial step that lawmakers need to get behind. 

“Our work provides key insights into the sources of damage caused by air pollution and suggests ways to reduce its impacts,” Thakrar said. “We hope policymakers and the public will use this to improve the lives of Americans.” 

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