Small Particulate Pollution Around the United States Needs to Improve
Many areas around the United States have much higher levels of dangerous substances in the air than is recommended. According to the World Health Organization, there are four million premature deaths around the world from air pollutants every year, which makes it one of the largest environmental risks to health. Across the United States, the pollution levels fall short of WHO guidance. The western United States is particularly bad, with particulate matter being twice the recommended limit. The updated guidance from the WHO cut the maximum limits of particulate pollution by half, so many places are now above the recommended limit.
The particulate pollution in question is microscopic solid and liquid droplets that are 2.5 micrometers in diameter, called PM2.5. It is very often found in wildfire smoke and vehicle exhaust and has lead to large amounts of respiratory caused hospital admissions and many deaths. The amount of exposure depends on where someone is in the United States, but the average for the country is eight micrograms per cubic meter, which is more than the WHO guideline of five. Western parts of the United States have an average of 11.7 micrograms for California and Nevada and 11.9 micrograms for Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.
The reason this particulate pollution is so dangerous is that the smaller particles have an easier time getting deeper into the body after being inhaled. After this happens, areas around the body can become inflamed. PM2.5 in smoke can easily enter the bloodstream and different organs once inhaled. The United States has a less strict standard for pollution levels, but the EPA says comparisons cannot be made. The EPA claims differences in the way pollutants are measured and the data is averaged is why EPA data and WHO data is not comparable. U.S. standards come from data that compares populations with different pollution levels and link this with the chance that people die earlier. The WHO on the other hand uses satellite data to estimate the pollutant exposure for millions of people.
West coast pollution can easily make its way to the east coast. Wildfires from California for instance can create large amounts of smoke than can be carried to the eastern United States 3000 miles away. The air quality in the United States needs to improve, but it is much better than it was. This improvement is the result of catalytic converters, improved technology in vehicles, and regulations for factories. In the 1970s, air quality could be as bad as 50 micrograms per cubic meter of PM2.5 in California, but with improvements, it has not gotten worse than 20 micrograms in the last 20 years.
Declines in pollution have been from the Clean Air Act, which created air quality standards in the United States. The United States does not adjust policies based on information from the WHO, but it does have to review the science that its standards are based on. Large pollution sources have already been addressed, so small improvements are the main challenges that we are facing.
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