Eric Thayer / The New York Times

Smoke from the Kincade fire lingers in Windsor, Calif. Oct. 28, 2019.

October 30, 2019

As Air Pollution Levels Rise, Cornell Professor Calls for Action

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Economic growth or environmental preservation? In a recent article published by EconoFact, Prof. Nicholas Sanders, policy analysis and management, broke down the challenges of analyzing air pollution while offering suggestions for achieving a balance between the warring sides.

Two difficulties in examining air pollution are determining exactly which factors are influencing pollution and what its effects are on human health, Sanders wrote. Controlled experiments raise both social and ethical issues given the question of subjecting participants to polluted air, so scientists must turn to “natural experiments” where they determine the relationship between people’s day-to-day living habits and lifestyles to air quality through purely observational studies.

Former research describes both positive and negative effects of industrial production and transportation patterns. For instance, air pollution levels dropped after a steel plant shut down in Utah Valley in the 1980s, resulting in fewer hospital visits for respiratory diseases, and a study in California that found that higher levels of local air pollution, linked primarily to traffic, increased local infant mortality.

To address those concerned about the tradeoff between economy and environment, Professor Sanders said environmental protection can actually spur economic growth.

“Research is now showing us that air pollution produces substantial medical costs, makes us less productive workers both physically and mentally, and even makes it harder for us to learn and build productive human capital,” Sanders said in an interview with The Sun. “A healthier, smarter workforce is a definite positive for economic growth and development.”

Air quality levels in the U.S. has dropped for the first time this year after decades of slow improvement, according to an Associated Press report. This trend may be impacted by the unusual number of wildfires in the past few years, which makes it unclear how much of this downward trend can be directly attributed to industrialization.

According to Sanders, one direct step towards decreasing air pollution is to dedicate more resources to innovating and funding renewable energy options and generation instead of burning fossil fuels, which releases both toxins and particles into the air.

“Cleaner energy options have seen drastic cost decreases,” Sanders said. “A Megawatt/hour of electricity from solar costs about 1/1,000 of what it did in 1970. If we can replicate that result with other renewables, it opens up a lot of options for cleaning up the air. ”

Improving air quality will take some negotiating and balancing between political powers. However, when evaluating possible consequences on health and society in the long term future, this may be the best option.

“Air quality improvements haven’t been free, and there are real costs of regulation,” Sanders said. “But the more we learn about pollutants like particulate matter, the more it appears that …. there remain large negative effects on human health. Avoiding those negative effects can mean big gains for society, often enough to far offset the costs of regulation.”