In the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, doctors noticed a surprising silver lining: Americans were having fewer heart attacks.
One likely reason, according to an analysis published last month by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, is that people were inhaling less air pollution.
Millions of workers were staying home instead of driving to work. Americans were suddenly burning a lot less gas. And across the country, the researchers found that regions with larger drops in pollution also had larger drops in heart attacks.
The menace of air pollution doesn’t command public attention as it did in the 1960s, when thick smog yellowed urban skies. But evidence has piled up in recent years that the real progress the United States has made in reducing air pollution isn’t nearly good enough. Air pollution is a lot deadlier than we previously understood — and, in particular, studies like the analysis of heart attacks during the pandemic show that the concentrations of air pollution currently permitted by federal policy are still far too high.
In an assessment of recent research, the World Health Organization concluded last year that air pollution is “the single largest environmental threat to human health and well-being.”
There are practical reasons, too, why it may be easier to curb emissions in the name of public health than in the name of climate change. The laws authorizing environmental regulation, including the Clean Air Act of 1963, were written as public health measures. Conservative federal judges are seeking to use that history to limit the government’s ability to address climate change. When the Supreme Court in February heard arguments in a case challenging the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, several members of the court’s conservative majority were openly skeptical that the agency has the legal authority to require the kinds of sweeping changes necessary to slow global warming.
The agency’s authority to require clean air for the sake of clean air is on much firmer ground. And science is providing the justification for stricter standards. Researchers at the University of Chicago estimated last year that air pollution cuts 2.2 years off the average human life. The effects are worse where pollution is thickest. But a wave of recent research, built on big data and improved computer models, shows that even lower levels of air pollution — levels legal under federal law — have devastating consequences. Even people living in rural areas where the air feels fresh are often inhaling levels of pollution sufficient to cause serious health problems. An analysis of the health records of 68.5 million Medicare recipients, published this year, found that regular exposure to low levels of air pollution significantly increased the chances of an early death.