Air pollution and mortality: issues and uncertainties

J Air Waste Manag Assoc. 1995 Dec;45(12):949-66. doi: 10.1080/10473289.1995.10467427.


Results from 31 epidemiology studies linking air pollution with premature mortality are compared and synthesized. Consistent positive associations between mortality and various measures of air pollution have been shown within each of two fundamentally different types of regression studies and in many variations within these basic types; this is extremely unlikely to have occurred by chance. In this paper, the measure of risk used is the elasticity, which is a dimensionless regression coefficient defined as the percentage change in the dependent variable associated with a 1% change in an independent variable, evaluated at the means. This metric has the advantage of independence from measurement units and averaging times, and is thus suitable for comparisons within and between studies involving different pollutants. Two basic types of studies are considered: time-series studies involving daily perturbations, and cross-sectional studies involving longer-term spatial gradients. The latter include prospective studies of differences in individual survival rates in different locations and studies of the differences in annual mortality rates for various communities. For a given data set, time-series regression results will vary according to the seasonal adjustment method used, the covariates included, and the lag structure assumed. The results from both types of cross-sectional regressions are highly dependent on the methods used to control for socioeconomic and personal lifestyle factors and on data quality. A major issue for all of these studies is that of partitioning the response among collinear pollution and weather variables. Previous studies showed that the variable with the least exposure measurement error may be favored in multiple regressions; assigning precise numerical results to a single pollutant is not possible under these circumstances. We found that the mean overall elasticity as obtained from time-series studies for mortality with respect to various air pollutants entered jointly was about 0.048, with a range from 0.01 to 0.12. This implies that about 5% of daily mortality is associated with air pollution, on average. The corresponding values from population-based cross-sectional studies were similar in magnitude, but the results from the three recent prospective studies varied from zero to about five times as much. Long-term responses in excess of short-term responses might be interpreted as showing the existence of chronic effects, but the uncertainties inherent in both types of studies make such an interpretation problematic.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Air Pollution / adverse effects*
  • Epidemiologic Methods*
  • Humans
  • Mortality*
  • United States / epidemiology