Study: Street-level air pollution increases health risk among elderly

EDF, Kaiser Permanente combined hyper local air pollution data and electronic health records to assess cardiac risk

May 15, 2018
Anne Marie Borrego, 202-572-3508,

A new study published today in the journal Environmental Health shows that differences in traffic-related air pollution are associated with higher rates of heart attacks and deaths from heart disease in the elderly. Scientists from Environmental Defense Fund and Kaiser Permanente Northern California’s Division of Research combined data from the nonprofit’s block-by-block study of air pollution in Oakland, CA, with 6 years of electronic health records from more than 40,000 local residents to evaluate the impacts of air quality between neighbors, people who live on the same street or within a few blocks of each other at an unprecedented resolution.

Specifically, the study shows that 3.9 parts per billion higher NO2 concentrations are associated with a 16 percent increased risk of diagnosed heart attacks, surgery or death from heart disease among the elderly and 0.36 microgram per meter cube higher black carbon concentrations are associated with a 15 percent increased risk of having a cardiac event and/or dying from coronary heart disease among the same population. 

The effect estimates of street-level neighborhood differences in long-term exposure to traffic-related air pollution on cardiovascular events in the general population of adults, were consistent with results found in previous studies, though not statistically significant. The associations among the elderly add to a growing body of evidence indicating higher susceptibility to air pollution.

In 2017, EDF revealed the results of our work with Google Earth Outreach, which deployed Google Street View cars to create one of the largest, most spatially precise datasets of mobile air pollution measurements ever assembled and mapped the differences in air quality within Oakland It also revealed unexpected variation in air pollution within smaller neighborhoods and even individual city blocks. This latest study combines that highly resolved air map with Kaiser Permanente’s health records to determine the health impacts of unhealthy air on the streets outside residents’ homes.

EDF is also visualizing these results in new maps, which show pollution associated relative risk for residents living in specific parcels. 

“With 80 percent of the US population living in urban areas and cardiovascular disease contributing to one in six heath care dollars spent, it is critical that we better understand what is driving health disparities in cities,” said Ananya Roy, EDF Health Scientist and a co-author of the study. “Local action requires local information. While researchers have been able to study air pollution and health effects across populations in large neighborhoods, towns or cities, accurately evaluating and quantifying risks from air pollution at street level has been elusive until now. 

“Our study shows the power of comprehensive health records for conducting cutting edge environmental health research,” said Stacey Alexeeff, lead author of the study and Research Scientist at the Kaiser Permanente Northern California Division of Research. “We’ve broken new ground by analyzing the health impact of air pollution on the city block scale for the first time.”

This research is part of EDF’s effort to advance the science behind air quality monitoring, using an emerging wave of environmental innovation to make pollution not only visible but actionable. EDF is not only tracking and measuring air pollution, but also bringing academia, industry, community groups and the public sector together to develop solutions and take these ideas to scale. EDF is already working on future air pollution mapping projects and will assess the health impacts of local pollution in new locations as well.

“As EDF builds on our research by expanding to other communities and exploring other kinds of data we can collect and analyze, we’ll be able to more accurately pinpoint environmental threats and do so in a way that’s scalable,” said Steven Hamburg, Chief Scientist at EDF. “We hope to empower people with this new information, driving solutions that improve the health of millions.” 

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