World leaders met in New York on Tuesday to discuss how to tackle the risks posed by climate change, but there was little discussion of one increasingly obvious observation: The planet might be in better shape today if more countries had followed the lead of the Richard Nixon administration when it and Congress enacted the pioneering Clean Air Act in 1970.
World experts credit the act, which was revised in 1977 and 1990, with giving the United States an early lead in fighting air pollution. That’s reflected in health and air pollution measurements in the second decade of the 21st century.
Alistair Woodward, who was the coordinating lead author of the health chapter in the fifth assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, told McClatchy that two years of improvement in U.S. life expectancy “are attributable to lower emissions.”
Similarly, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency credited implementation of the Clean Air Act with “preventing hundreds of thousands of cases of serious health effects each year.”
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Indeed, a study this year of air pollution around the world by the World Health Organization found that U.S. cities fare much better than cities elsewhere in the amount of fine particle matter in the air, the best indicator of the level of health risks from air pollution.
The global agency found that, in general, large cities in the United States were likely to have much lower levels of particles measuring 2.5 micrometers in diameter or less floating in every cubic meter of air. A safe level is considered 10 milligrams per cubic meter.
New York’s level was measured at 14 milligrams per cubic meter, Los Angeles’ was measured at 20 and Chicago’s at 13. Compare that with other major world cities such as Beijing’s 58, New Delhi’s 173 and Cairo’s 73. European cities were closer to U.S. levels, with London at 16, Paris 17, and Berlin 20.
Several U.S. cities were below the 10 milligram level, including Durham-Chapel Hill, N.C., at 8; Raleigh-Cary, N.C., at 9; Miami-Fort Lauderdale, Fla., at 8; Sacramento, Calif., at 9; Wichita, Kan., at 9; Lexington, Ky., at 10; and Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, Wash., at 10.
Cities that reported higher levels included Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas (12); Macon, Ga. (12); Kansas City, Mo. (15) and Modesto, Calif. (15). One of the highest levels, 45 milligrams per cubic meter, was reported at Fresno, Calif.
Two world cities that ranked lower in fine particle pollution were Sydney, with a reading of 5, and Toronto, with 8.
Overall, the WHO estimates that 7 million people die annually worldwide because of air pollution, according to estimates released Monday.
“I’m afraid the figures are very dramatic.” said Maria Neira, the WHO director for environmental and social determinants of public health. “Air pollution is one of the most significant health risks we are confronting today.”
A study by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development published in May estimated that air pollution costs the advanced economies plus China and India about $3.5 trillion a year in premature deaths and ill health. The study warned that the costs will rise without government action to limit vehicle emissions.