How pollution impacts human health

Combining block-by-block traffic-related air pollution data with electronic health records shows how location impacts health.

EDF and our partners at Kaiser Permanente combined our block-by-block data of traffic-related air pollution collected with Aclima-equipped Google Street View cars with the electronic health records of 41,000 people in Oakland, California, to understand how much place matters in driving health disparities. The study points to new ways we can use big data [PDF] to ultimately improve human health.

Heart attack risk increases in the elderly

While air pollution has long been associated with increased health risk, our study demonstrates that for the elderly, differences in pollution between neighbors, even those who live on the same street or within a few blocks of each other, can increase risks of heart attack and deaths from heart disease.

Specifically, we found that for people age 65 and over, higher concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and black carbon (BC) on the streets outside their homes were associated with an increased rate of having a heart attack, heart surgery, and/or dying due to coronary heart disease. The analysis accounted for other established risk factors (including age, race, sex, obesity, poverty, smoking, baseline health, and medication use). Effects among adults of all ages (>18 years) were weaker and not conclusive. Because of damage accumulated over time, environmental exposures are more likely to trigger heart attacks among the elderly. The elderly and other vulnerable populations - like children and pregnant women - are the most likely to experience health impacts from exposure to air pollution.

A new way to measure health risks

While previous studies have examined the health impacts of air pollution by comparing risks across neighborhoods, cities or counties, this is the first time researchers have examined health records alongside high-resolution measurements of street-level air pollution within neighborhoods.

This methodology points to new ways health professionals and researchers can use routinely-collected data to better understand how air pollution contributes to health disparities, so people can develop solutions.

Maps show increased risk of heart attack

The following maps show how air pollution impacts the health of individuals age 65 and above in parts of Oakland. EDF used local pollution monitoring data from our earlier study to estimate exposures by averaging all measurements within 30 meters of each residential parcel. We then used the published pollutant concentration-health effects information from our electronic health records study to assign estimated risks based on average NO2-related risk. The maps display estimated increased coronary heart disease risk due to air pollution on average based on the results of our study. It does not predict individual risk for residents living in these parcels or display the impacts of other individual cardiovascular risks like smoking, age, race, obesity, nutrition, physical activity, and cholesterol.

West/Downtown Oakland Study Area

Air pollution's impact on the heart in the elderly (65+)

Estimated traffic pollution-related health risk

Average risk of heart attack or heart disease-related surgery or death (for this study)

Up to 12% higher risk

12%-26% higher risk

26%-42% higher risk

More than 42% higher risk

Air pollution data not available

Study boundary

Note

The maps displays the NO2 pollution-associated increases in risk of having heart attacks, heart surgery, and/or dying due to coronary heart disease among the elderly (age 65+) for residential land parcels in West, Downtown, and East Oakland. Air pollution levels (NO2) were measured during May 2015-June 2016. Health risk estimates used to generate the map are based on average effects from the published empirical study of air pollution and cardiovascular disease. The map does not represent a) Individual risk of heart disease, because many factors that influence individual risk are not used to create this map. b) Real-time exposure or risk levels, as air pollution levels can change over time. c) The addresses of study participants. Data from the study and used to generate this map is anonymized. EDF does not hold any responsibility for how this map or data is used including for medical advice.

On average, West and Downtown Oakland had higher traffic-related air pollution and associated heart disease risks than East Oakland . However, within East Oakland this work suggest areas of elevated risk.

East Oakland Study Area

Air pollution's impact on the heart in the elderly (65+)

Estimated traffic pollution-related health risk

Average risk of heart attack or heart disease-related surgery or death (for this study)

Up to 12% higher risk

12%-26% higher risk

26%-42% higher risk

More than 42% higher risk

Air pollution data not available

Study boundary

More information

The maps displays the NO2 pollution-associated increases in risk of having heart attacks, heart surgery, and/or dying due to coronary heart disease among the elderly (age 65+) for residential land parcels in West, Downtown, and East Oakland. Air pollution levels (NO2) were measured during May 2015-June 2016. Health risk estimates used to generate the map are based on average effects from the published empirical study of air pollution and cardiovascular disease. The map does not represent a) Individual risk of heart disease, because many factors that influence individual risk are not used to create this map. b) Real-time exposure or risk levels, as air pollution levels can change over time. c) The addresses of study participants. Data from the study and used to generate this map is anonymized. EDF does not hold any responsibility for how this map or data is used including for medical advice.

Using data to improve health

The findings from this study demonstrate why local and state officials should take air pollution into consideration when making decisions about transportation, industrial activity and regional planning. Now that we can see just how harmful air pollution can be from block to block, addressing it should be a key component in reducing health disparities.

You can help: Make your voice heard!

Nearly one fifth of all Americans and 40 percent of Californians live close to high-traffic roads. Our study demonstrates that traffic-related air pollution exposure is associated with significant health impacts and highlights the need to further reduce transport emissions. However, the ambitious vehicle emission standards that promise to bring down greenhouse gas emissions from cars and light trucks over the next 7-10 years are now under threat by the current administration. In addition, the EPA is working to rollback emission limits for high-polluting heavy-duty freight glider trucks.

Motor vehicles represent a major share of the air and climate pollutants harming communities across the United States. Their contribution to health and climate threats makes adopting and enforcing the strongest possible motor vehicle standards vital. We cannot afford to backslide on these important standards that help protect people's health.

Join us in defending these rules and protect our health from more harmful emissions.

If you live in Oakland, connect with local groups like the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project (WOEIP) to learn more about issues that affect Oakland air quality and what can be done locally.