New research shows that air pollution can be lethal even at low concentrations, under the levels determined to be harmful even under stringent definitions. These findings were published last month in the periodical put out by the United States Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. A collaborator in this study was Dr. Itai Kloog from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
Prof. Joel Schwartz of Harvard University, one of the leaders of the study, is visiting Israel this week as a guest of the Environment and Health Fund. On his visit, Schwartz held a meeting with experts at the Ministry of Environmental Protection, to discuss exposure to pollutants.
The researchers investigated the effects of exposing people over 65 years old, in New England, to miniscule polluting particles, fewer than 2.5 microns in diameter. Such particles are emitted by cars, factories and power-generating plants, penetrate the respiratory system and increase the risk of infection and respiratory and blood vessel disease. The researchers found that 10 micrograms of pollutants per cubic meter of air raised mortality by 7.5% in the population under study. According to U.S. standards a top level of 35 micrograms per cubic meter is the absolute permissible limit, yet the study showed that even lower levels can increase mortality.
“What’s special about this study is that participants are at an age at which they’re entitled to medical insurance, so we had all their details,” said Schwartz in a conversation with Haaretz. He added that they used a novel method to follow pollution with the aid of a satellite. “That way we could assess pollution even where there were no monitoring devices.”
Schwartz emphasized that the study doesn’t suggest the abolition of standards. “Standards are useful for planning and deciding what and where to build, but other methods should be used to reduce this pollution,” he said.
He cited Boston as an example. The city complies with established standards, yet local authorities decided to further reduce pollution levels by helping to upgrade filtering devices on cars and buses. New York decided to encourage the usage of natural gas-powered buses, where there is a sharp drop in the emission of polluting particles.
Polluting aerial particles are a worldwide problem, present in Israel as well. The head of the aerial monitoring division at the Ministry of Environmental Protection Levana Kordova says that Israel established a less stringent standard than the U.S. since naturally-originating pollution sources such as desert dust are more common here.
“Prof. Schwartz suggested that we try and isolate man-derived particles in our measurements, including particles smaller than 2.5 microns” notes Kordova. “We’ll examine his method and determine the health implications of these particles, looking at whether changing standards is worthwhile.”
In the meantime, the ministry is trying to expand the use of filters, especially in heavy diesel-powered vehicles such as trucks and buses. This will be a mainstay of the recommendations for reducing pollution in the Haifa Bay area currently being formulated by the ministry. Another step will be the introduction of gas-powered buses. In recent weeks Egged and Supergas, in collaboration with auto importer MAN, have been experimenting with such a bus in the Haifa area. The experiment will last three months, aided by the unit for alternative fuels at the Prime Minister’s Office.