Long-term exposure to certain air pollutants is tied to a higher risk of being admitted to the hospital for serious cardiovascular or respiratory problems, according to a new study of the U.S. Medicare population published in the journal Circulation.
Researchers looked at claims records for over 63 million Medicare beneficiaries, and compared hospital admissions with measured levels of air pollutants in the areas where people lived. In particular, they compared levels of fine particulate matter (measuring 2.5 micrometers or less), nitrogen dioxide and tropospheric ozone with hospitalizations for heart attacks, strokes, atrial fibrillation or flutter, and pneumonia, as noted in a Healio article on the study.
Long-term exposure to fine particulate matter was linked to a higher risk of hospitalization for all of the health conditions included in the study. The strongest link was to strokes, with each additional fine particle per cubic meter linked to an additional 0.0091% risk of being hospitalized for a stroke. Overall, fine particulate matter — the result of fossil fuel combustion, especially burning coal — was linked to an additional 2,536 hospitalizations for stroke each year.
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Levels of nitrogen dioxide were linked to a significant increase in the risk for stroke and atrial fibrillation or flutter, but a lower risk for heart attack and pneumonia. Ozone levels were linked to a higher risk for pneumonia, but none of the other conditions.
In each case where a link to hospitalization was found, even lower levels of the measured pollutants were tied to an elevated risk. In other words, there appears to be no “safe level” of these pollutants in the atmosphere, since any level at all is linked to an increase in serious health problems.
In addition to the human suffering caused by these serious health effects linked to pollution, it’s important to note that U.S. taxpayers are directly paying for these hospitalizations through Medicare. Therefore, improving air quality through federal regulations and other measures could lead to significant savings in federal health spending, while at the same time saving thousands of older Americans from hospitalization for a health crisis each year.
“Long-term exposure to air pollutants poses a significant risk to cardiovascular and respiratory health among the elderly population in the United States,” the researchers concluded, “with the greatest increase in the association per unit of exposure occurring at lower concentrations.” While it may be possible to limit exposure to certain air pollutants on an individual basis, ultimately the only solution to this problem, the researchers note, is to actually improve air quality in the United States.
Want to learn more about diabetes and air pollution? Read “Air Pollution, Diabetes Linked in Children in New Study,” “Air Pollution Linked to Increased Risk of Obesity, Inflammation” and “Traffic Pollution Linked to Increased Inflammation.”