There’s no such thing as “safe” pollution

It never ceases to amaze me that so many people still think they live in an insulated bubble. That they exist in a magical place where even though they do horrendous things to the environment, day-after-day, it’ll somehow never affect them.

The reality, of course, that the world does not work this way… not does it revolved around them. As my mother always told me, “you can do as bad as you want, but never for as long as you want.”

Our disregard for and nonchalance toward environmental toxins was bound to backfire eventually. And those chickens are coming home to roost as I type this.

It seems as though every day, we’re hearing about a new chemical — in our food, in our water, or in our personal care products — that has caused irreparable damage to the public health. Even with exposure at levels that we once believed to be safe.

And now? Well, according to new data, you can count the air that you breathe among those hidden poisons. Because as it turns out, the levels of air pollution that fall well within our current parameters for safety can still kill you.

This was a complicated analysis, designed to assess the role that short-term exposure to ozone and fine particulate matter may have played in nearly a quarter billion deaths.

Ground-level ozone — not to be confused with the protective ozone layer in the stratosphere — is a gas formed when pollutants interact in the sun and still air. It’s the main component of smog. And when inhaled, it can trigger chest pain, coughing, throat irritation, asthma, and other breathing difficulties.

Fine particulate matter (PM), meanwhile, is an airborne mix of liquid and tiny particles — either visible, like soot and dust, or invisible. When you see haze, these pollutants are the cause. And when inhaled, PM — especially the finer particles, which are able to lodge deeper into your lungs — can cause very serious health problems.

These are the pollutants at play when summertime air quality alerts are issued. But apparently, mere warnings just aren’t enough. Because researchers found that, for every 10-unit increase in either ozone or PM, there was also a significant uptick in death rates to go with it.

Researchers also found that some groups of people are particularly vulnerable to this danger — including the elderly, women, non-whites, and Medicaid recipients. And that when ozone concentration was high on a particular day, deaths among high-risk people (asthmatics, COPD patients, etc.) didn’t spike until two full days later.

It’s not the first study of its kind to note this lethal effect. But it does go to show that, even as air pollution levels have dropped, the devastating effects on human health have persisted.

At the very least, our country’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) — which were set by the EPA under the Clean Air Act — require a re-haul. (Assuming, of course, that the EPA is even still operating under this current administration.)

This study found that risk of death was significant, even on days with pollution levels well below the danger zone according to NAAQS. Which means we’re just not taking this threat seriously enough. The current standards are clearly too relaxed to keep us safe. And as times have changed, newer threats are emerging that aren’t even considered under today’s guidelines.

In the meantime, maybe local weather reports can pick up some of the government’s slack. If the media treated this phenomenon like the deadly “weather event” that it is, instead of issuing their tepid standard alerts, it might help to make a difference while we continue to work on broader environmental solutions.

At least that way, people could make an informed decision as to whether or not it’s worth leaving the house on any given day. As it is, we’re all rolling the dice the minute we walk out that door.