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Long-term exposure to low levels of traffic pollution is associated with higher health care costs for elderly Oakland residents, according to a hyper-local study recently published in the peer-reviewed journal Atmospheric Environment.

Emergency room costs were nearly $500 higher per year for the average elderly patient when nitrogen dioxide, a common traffic pollutant, was 5.9 parts per billion higher than areas with nitrogen dioxide of 4.2 parts per billion.

California considers anything above long-term exposure of 30 parts per billion to be harmful to humans. This study shows costs rising even at low levels of pollution.

Study coauthors Stacey E. Alexeeff, Ph.D. (left), a scientist/biostatistician at the Kaiser Permanente Northern California Division of Research, and Ananya Roy, Sc.D., senior health scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund. (Photos courtesy of Kaiser Permanente and John Rae via Bay City News)

“Most of these levels are below what the state considers to be harmful,” said Kaiser Permanente Division of Research scientist Stacey Alexeeff, who co-first authored the study with senior health scientist Ananya Roy with the Environmental Defense Fund.

The effects are particularly costly for heart disease patients in areas with 10.1 parts per billion of nitrogen dioxide. Total annual direct health care costs for them were 7 percent higher than for patients exposed to 4.2 parts per billion of nitrogen dioxide. Emergency room costs were 23 percent higher.

The study analyzed block-by-block pollution over two and a half years and five years of Kaiser Permanente Northern California patient health records. Researchers used pollution data collected by monitors attached to Google Street View cars.

Researchers linked the air quality data to patient addresses from more than 25,000 Kaiser members.

Roy said the increased costs at $500 per person could add significantly to Medicare costs, which were nearly $830 billion in 2020, according to Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

“It does add up to quite a lot of money,” Roy said.

Roy suggested the research has important implications for transportation and environmental policy.

Slashing transportation emissions “are going to be vital to ensuring that we have healthy communities,” Roy said. Electric cars and trucks could be a big part of that, she suggested.

Alexeeff sees the need for policy changes too.

“I think it’s really difficult because people can’t just move” from their home easily, Alexeeff said.

The Environmental Defense Fund paid for the study.