Air pollution is killing New Yorkers — but it’s not coming from here

Feeling wheezy in New York City? Blame Wyoming, North Dakota and Virginia.

In the United States, 41-53% of all premature deaths related to poor air quality can be attributed to pollution coming from another state, according to a study published in the journal Nature on Wednesday. In particular, New York suffered the largest percentage of those deaths — 60% — due to cross-state pollution, resulting in 3,800 deaths in 2018.

While scientists have known that traveling pollution can be harmful, Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers on this study are the first to quantify the number of deaths caused by pollution traveling across state lines.

“It’s not necessarily just the adjacent state, but states over 1,000 miles away that can be affected,” Steven Barrett, study co-author and professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, said in a press release. “Different kinds of emissions have a different kind of range.”

Their study focused on emissions from various industrial sectors, including power generation and transportation by land, air and sea, and found that electric power plants contributed the most to out-of-state deaths. The good news is that pollution-related deaths have trended down by 30% between 2005 and 2018, from around 111,000 to 76,500.

Researchers credit regulation efforts, such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Air Act, for the reduction. The comprehensive legislation, passed in 1963, is aimed at mitigating acid rain, ozone depletion and toxic air pollution by putting limitations on emissions output from motor vehicles, aircrafts and power companies, among others. The Cross-State Air Pollution Rule of 2011 sets further restrictions on certain states and protects those downwind.

But that won’t be enough, study authors say.

“Regulators in the US have done a pretty good job of hitting the most important thing first, which is power generation, by reducing sulfur dioxide emissions drastically, and there’s been a huge improvement, as we see in the results,” said Barrett. “Now it’s looking like other emissions sectors are becoming important. To make further progress, we should start focusing on road transportation and commercial and residential emissions.”

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