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The Insidious Air Toxic That Just Became Even Deadlier

The air we breathe contains solid and liquid particles that have the potential to pose serious health concerns ranging from respiratory and liver hazards to neurological damage.  A report from Harvard University states, "Patterns in Covid-19 death rates generally mimic patterns in both high population density and high [particulate matter] PM2.5 exposure areas."  The study suggests Covid-19 death rates rise by about 15% in areas with even a small increase in fine-particle pollution levels.

The National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA) uses emissions data in dozens of categories to estimate health risks from toxic air pollutants. By looking at data from the NATA, released by the EPA in 2018, we can get a better understanding of which areas of the U.S. are impacted the most by particulate matter.  Read on to learn more about how much risk your city, or a city you're looking into, poses!

RankCity, StateParticulate matter - micrograms/cubic meterIndex - risk of respiratory Illness
1New York, NY1.84010
2Chicago, IL1.2206.6
3Seattle, WA1.3496.6
4Miami, FL1.2436.5
5San Francisco, CA1.2595.8
6Washington, DC1.1075.6
7Denver, CO1.0765.4
8New Orleans, LA1.0995.4
9Long Beach, CA1.1805.1
10Atlanta, GA0.9074.6

Although this one may not come as a shock, New York City is at the very top of our rankings with a risk index of 10 and 1.840 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter of air, posing the greatest amount of risk of respiratory illness.  Air pollution has long been one of New York City�s most significant public health challenges. The NYC Department of Health provides one grave example of this: between 2005 and 2007, levels of particulate matter contributed to over 3,000 premature deaths and over 8,000 ER department visits and hospitalizations for respiratory disease in NYC each year. With a population of 8.6 million, it's going to take a strong effort to continue on the difficult journey of reducing the amount of air pollution.

One step in the right direction is that Governor Cuomo plans to meet 50% of New York's energy demands with renewable sources by 2030. This project is supposed to be up and running by 2022 and should reduce carbon emissions by 1.6 million tons, the equivalent of taking 340,000 cars off the road- but there is still a long way to go. 

In comparison, the city at the bottom of the list with the lowest amount of particulate matter (0.345 micrograms per cubic meter) and the lowest risk index (1) is San Jose, CA. It may come as a surprise that San Jose is the city in the U.S. with the lowest amount of particulate matter since just last summer, San Jose leaders declared a climate emergency. Despite that fact, the amount of particulate matter, which is just one component of the overall air quality index, is the lowest of the fifty largest cities in the U.S.

RankCity, StateParticulate matter - micrograms/cubic meterIndex - risk of respiratory Illness
41El Paso, TX0.4541.8
42Raleigh, NC0.4821.8
43San Antonio, TX0.4601.7
44San Diego, CA0.4831.7
45Sacramento, CA0.4151.3
46Tulsa, OK0.4051.3
47Honolulu, HI0.3751.3
48Wichita, KS0.3961.3
49Virginia Beach, VA0.3781.2
50San Jose, CA0.3451

In the San Francisco Bay Area Basin, most of the particulate matter stems from factories, demolition, agricultural activities, motor vehicles, construction, and grading. San Jose plans to try to keep the level of particulate matter low, and address the problem of the overall climate emergency, through a variety of tactics including the implementation of "all-electric, zero-net-carbon" new municipal facilities. Another effort that is underway is partnering with San Jose Clean Energy to provide 100% carbon-free energy to residents by 2021. San Jose also plans to prohibit the use of natural gas in new construction projects citywide by January 2023.

Overall, it's clear that the city in our rankings with the lowest amount of particulate matter has some room for improvement in terms of improving the health of the environment and therefore the health of its inhabitants. There is still a long way to go, and the health risks associated with high levels of particulate matter highlight the importance of climate change substantially.  Notwithstanding the aforementioned, while we are taking steps in our own lives to reduce our impact on the environment, one positive thing we can keep in mind is that several other cities in the U.S., potentially ones that we might want to move to one day, are doing the same.

Particulate Matter Health Risks

Specific health risks associated with high levels of particulate matter include cardiac arrhythmias and heart attacks as well as asthma attacks and bronchitis. The size of the particles directly correlates with their potential for causing health problems. Fine particles pose the greatest risk because they can get deep into the lungs and possibly even into the bloodstream. As you can imagine, lung irritation poses a great concern in the age of Covid-19 because of the fact that it is a respiratory disease. Anything that weakens one�s respiratory system puts them at greater risk of succumbing to the effects of the Coronavirus. Although coarse particles are less of a concern, they can still irritate the nose, throat, and eyes. To learn more about who is at the most risk from exposure to both types of particulate matter as well as ways to mitigate health risks, check out the EPA document  Particle Pollution and Your Health (PDF)


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