November 7, 1997 in Nation/World

Study: Pollution Exacts Lethal Toll Group Says Reduction Of Air Particulates Could Save Millions Of Lives Over 20 Years

Richard Saltus Boston Globe
 

Deaths from the fine particles in air pollutants, which are generated mainly by coal-fired power plants, could reach 700,000 a year by 2020 unless controls are enacted, an international scientific group is projecting.

Reducing such pollution, which is emitted from fossil fuel combustion along with carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse gases,” could prevent a total of 8 million deaths between 2000 and 2020, as well as slowing the march of global warming, the group says in a paper published in The Lancet, a medical journal.

The findings should provide compelling reasons to adopt limits on fossil fuel burning in countries that presently are taking a “Why me?” stance on proposals they feel would hurt their economies, said authors of the report.

“What’s forgotten here is that fossil fuel combustion is where air pollution comes from,” said Joel Schwartz, an environmental health specialist at the Harvard School of Public Health. “The health benefits from lower pollution accrue to your country” even if the long-term climate benefits are global, he said.

The report in Lancet comes from the Working Group on Public Health and Fossil-Fuel Combustion, which includes specialists from the World Health Organization, the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the nonprofit World Resources Institute in Washington.

Devra Lee Davis, an environmental scientist with the World Resources Institute, said she will present the findings at the United Nations conference in Kyoto, Japan, next month where a climate change treaty is to be signed.

“Our message is quite simple,” she said in a telephone interview. “These health benefits have been uncounted in the whole equation of reducing C02,” she said.

Richard Wilson, a Harvard physicist and contributor to the report, said, “if you want to affect global climate change the only way is to reduce fossil-fuel burning, particularly coal, and that will reduce air pollution.” One important strategy is to switch to natural gas for much energy use, he said, and another is to increase the use of nuclear power, a stance on which many environmentalists disagree with him.

The group’s analysis compared two projections of energy use and generation. One, termed “business as usual,” was based on expected energy consumption and associated emissions of CO2. The other scenario assumed that developed countries would reduce CO2 emissions by 15 percent below their 1990 levels by the year 2010, and developing countries would reduce their emissions 10 percent below their levels now forecast for 2010.

Emissions from burning fossil fuels create, in addition to carbon dioxide and other gases, a host of pollutants including fine particulate matter that’s often coated with traces of metals. Schwartz, the Harvard epidemiologist, said most scientists now agree that fine particles inhaled deeply into the breathing passages and lungs cause a variety of heart and pulmonary diseases. These include cardiac arrhythmias, heart attacks, bronchitis, and pneumonia.

The current estimate is that 70,000 premature deaths occur each year in the United States from such pollution, he said. Recent changes to clean air regulation don’t require control of particulates in this country until 14 years from now, said Schwartz.

In the current global climate debate, said Schwartz, some developed countries are arguing that the real problem is in the developing countries where economic growth encourages massive increases in power generation, much of it by burning fossil fuels.

But many in those countries argue that their need for economic development is greater than in the developed countries and therefore they should be allowed to catch up - in energy and CO2 emissions.

“The answer from this study is that you don’t want to catch up,” said Schwartz.

“There are good reasons to do things in a more energy- efficient way,” he added. “The Chinese have astronomical bronchitis rates, and it’s going to get worse if they build 300 coal-fired power plants.”

By the same token, the report’s authors said, it would be in America’s interest to cut CO2 emissions sharply: In the United States alone the number of avoidable deaths from particulate exposure in the year 2020 could equal the 33,000 deaths associated with immunodeficiency diseases like AIDS that occurred in the nation in 1995.

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