The Good News Is Cutting Pollution Saves Lives Fast


Stephen Luntz

Stephen has a science degree with a major in physics, an arts degree with majors in English Literature and History and Philosophy of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication.

Freelance Writer

Sydney sun

The bushfires near Sydney have turned the sky orange and forced people to wear gas masks. The health effects are severe, but at least things will improve quickly when the fires stop. Cities polluted on an ongoing basis could reap the same benefits. PhotosWarren/Shutterstock

Cities, and even some rural areas, are choking on bad air. Study after study has found air pollution is among the largest causes of death globally, but little is being done. That's a mistake: sickness and death rates fall astonishingly quickly where air quality improves.

Numerous studies have shown many serious health conditions become more or less common in line with air pollution, but these usually track changes over many years. Professor Dean Schraufnagel of the University of Illinois, Chicago, brought together the few examining more sudden shifts. For example, during the 1996 Summer Olympics, the city of Atlanta improved public transport and shut down parts of the city to cars to ensure athletes could get to their events on time.


Improving air quality wasn't the goal, but during the games' 17 days, the city's pollution indexes fell dramatically. Schraufnagel found children's medical visits for asthma dropped by 40 percent and hospitalizations fell 19 percent. During the games themselves, it's easy to imagine other factors explaining these drops, but the benefits lasted for weeks after the closing ceremony.

In a more extended example, Schraufnagel reports in Annals of the American Thoracic Society that within months of a 2004 Irish ban on smoking in public bars, workers reported fewer respiratory symptoms. Soon after, strokes and heart disease rates also slumped.

Not all reductions were associated with government action. When a Utah Valley steel mill shut for 13 months, everything from hospitalizations for respiratory conditions to school absenteeism fell, before rebounding when the mill reopened.

Taking these into consideration, it is clear getting tough on pollutants will likely bring big health care savings. In the long run, the US EPA has calculated that the benefits of the (currently under attack) Clean Air Act outweigh the costs 32 to 1, while adding seven months to the average American's life. All this without even considering the climate advantages of reducing the largest source of pollution – fossil fuel consumption.


"We knew there were benefits from pollution control, but the magnitude and relatively short time duration to accomplish them were impressive," Schraufnagel said in a statement

It may be easy to dismiss this as a problem for cities where the pollution is visible, but the paper notes: “Although regions with high air pollution have the greatest potential for health benefits, health improvements continue to be associated with pollution decreases even below international standards.”

Indoor pollution matters as well, with Schraufnagel and co-authors pointing to examples of the immediate benefits of replacing dirty cooking stoves and even unflued gas heaters.