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Study finds link between air pollution and corn production

Researchers say the connection could be leading to increased mortality rates

Photo (c) lovelyday12 - Getty Images
Researchers have explored how air pollution is negatively affecting consumers’ health and the environment, but a recent study tackles the issue from a new angle: corn production.

According to researchers from the University of Minnesota, air pollution caused by corn production is responsible for an uptick in the mortality rate, causing over 4,000 premature deaths nationwide. The study also revealed that geography plays a role here.

“The deaths caused per bushel in western corn belt states such as Minnesota, Iowa, and Nebraska tend to be lower than in eastern corn belt states such as Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio,” said researcher Jason Hill.

Discovering the dangers

To see the effect that corn production had on the mortality rate, the researchers analyzed data from different counties across the country to determine how much corn was being produced and what the process of producing corn looked like.

The study revealed that nitrogen fertilizer, which is most commonly used for corn crops, releases ammonia into the air. Ammonia is dangerous in that it typically is the gateway for fine particulate matter -- PM2.5 -- to be released into the air, which is one of the most harmful greenhouse gas emissions.

The researchers found that these gases damage air quality and are harmful to consumers’ health. Overall, air pollution caused by corn production was found to be responsible for over 4,000 premature deaths and monetary damages worth around $39 billion.

“It’s important for farmers to have this information so that they can implement practices that reduce the environmental impact of the crops they grow,” said Hill. “Farmers can greatly improve the environmental profile of their corn by using precision agriculture tools and switching to fertilizers that have lower ammonia emissions.”

Hill hopes that these findings inspire farmers to take the initiative to practice greener farming habits, and offers suggestions like changing the planting location and planting crops with less fertilizer as possible solutions.

“Not only are ammonia emissions from fertilizer damaging to human health, they are also a waste of money for farmers because they are not getting the benefit of the nitrogen that they’re paying for,” said Hill. “The number of deaths related to corn production could be reduced through these key tactics.”

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