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How many people die when polluters exceed their limits?

Air quality measurement it is intrinsically a measure of excess — any amount of oxides of toxic nitrogen, ozone at ground level, and fine particles is probably bad for human health. But when it comes to federal regulations, the notion of excess becomes a bit goofy. When a refinery or plant exceeds the limits set by the local public health authority to limit pollution, these fumes are considered “excessive emissions”, or, more curiously, “excesses”.

Emission limits are arbitrary, of course. Less pollution is always better in a country where more than 20 people die every hour from poor air quality, and where that weight is destroyed towards communities of color. But analyzing the human cost of these overflows is helpful in weighing — or perhaps tightening — those arbitrary limits. So Nikolaos Zirogiannis, an environmental economist at Indiana University, decided to quantify the health burden in a state: How many people die each year because of this in addition pollution?

His team has chosen to focus on Texas, where the large number of fossil fuels and chemical plants adhere to industry-friendly state regulations to make it a hot spot for excessive emissions. But it also happens to have the strictest public disclosure requirements of the nation; in 2001, state legislators mandated not only that structures must report excessive emissions within 24 hours, but that these data be updated daily for public review. “Texas is the only state in the country that has a very, very detailed record keeping requirement in place for these types of emissions,” says Zirogiannis.

He and his team have been combing for 15 years of value reports, as well as mortality statistics and data from local air quality monitors. They concluded that every year, 35 elderly people die in Texas because of those excessive emissions – in other words, these are deaths that would not have happened if all polluters had been kept within their permitted limits. It is the first time that any scientists have linked health effects to this subset of pollution. The results It will appear in the July issue of the Journal of Economics and Environmental Management.

“That’s a very high number,” says Zirogiannis, “because it’s a number that comes only from these surpluses.”

The main way the team linked these emissions to the deaths was by isolating the degree to which local ozone levels increase at ground level, an ugly pollutant which can trigger heart problems and flare-ups of respiratory illnesses. “There is a vast body of literature linking elevated ozone levels to respiratory and cardiovascular mortality,” says Joan Casey, an environmental health scientist at Columbia University who was not involved in the study. Heart attacks, strokes, asthma attacks, exacerbation of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – “These are the kinds of results that I expected that count on what I see here,” says Casey.

Oil refineries, natural gas plants, chemical plants, power plants and pipelines are barely closed systems. Every time one shuts down for maintenance, resumes backup, or just happens to malfunction – it’s an opportunity for unusual emissions. Nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), or other pollutants are released into the local air. Each can be dangerous on its own, but in a sunlit atmosphere, these chemicals also contribute to the formation of ozone at ground level.

The team made the link between industrial air pollution and peaks in local ozone levels by collecting reports from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for the years between 2002 and 2017. show when, where, and why releases were made, and what type of chemical contamination was involved. They found a correlation between the release of nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and VOCs with jumps in ozone readings from monitors. traced by the Environmental Protection Agency.


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