After traffic, the biggest cause of air pollution in our cities is heating our homes. Whether we burn gas or oil, these residential combustion sources (RC) are a major cause of poor health. A new study, from Boston University, finds that it is killing 10,000 U.S. residents per year.
A previous study says that 20% of urban air pollution is caused by burning domestic fuel, and the new research out of Boston says that the majority of these emissions come from burning wood. But even those 10,000 deaths caused by keeping our homes warm are nothing next to the estimated number of deaths from coal power plants: 21,000.
The problem is PM2.5, particulate matter which measures 2.5 micrometers or less. PM2.5 is small enough to penetrate the lungs, and to work its way into the major organs and the bloodstream. Once there, anyone with lung or heart disease, or more vulnerable folks like the old, or kids, are in trouble.
The breakdown of these deaths varies from state to state, because RC pollution is higher where population density is higher, due to more people heating more homes. This means that urban centers and highly-populated regions are worse. The accompanying chart shows the number of premature deaths associated with RC emissions across the states. These are rated by source. The deaths caused don’t necessarily occur in the source state–they’re just caused by pollution from that source state. As you can see, the densely-populated east and west coasts are the main culprits here.
What can be done? After all, we need to warm our homes. One option could be education, teaching people to wear a sweater instead of cranking up the thermostat an extra few degrees when things turn cold. Another is better-designed housing Changing that is going to be tricky, though, unless we can come up with incentives for people to upgrade their homes, and to force developers to make new homes more energy efficient.