Major Harvard Chan studies concur: Air pollution boosts U.S. death rates

Twenty-five years ago, the Harvard Six Cities Study drew a strong link between exposure to fine particulate air pollution and increased risk of early death in six U.S. cities. Last year, another Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health study using new technologies and innovations in statistical analysis drew the same main conclusion.

The Six Cities Study prompted an aggressive backlash from industry, which claimed that the research—led by Douglas Dockery, John L. Loeb and Frances Lehman Loeb Research Professor of Environmental Epidemiology at Harvard Chan School—was based on “secret science” because it relied on confidential personal health data. The study, however, underwent a strenuous peer-review process. And leaders of the scientific community have pointed out that most large public health studies rely on sensitive health data, protected under confidentiality agreements, to uncover environmental exposures to human health risks.

The 2017 study, led by Francesca Dominici, professor of biostatistics at Harvard Chan School and co-director of the Harvard Data Science Initiative, examined Medicare data, a large and public dataset documenting the health of U.S. citizens, meaning that charges of secret science—an issue that has been raised again in recent months by current EPA administrator Scott Pruitt—likely won’t apply. (On June 4, Harvard University President Drew Faust wrote to Pruitt to condemn a rule he proposed in April that would mandate publication of data used to craft scientific studies that help shape public policy.)

In a June 5, 2018 Harvard Magazine article, Dominici said she hopes her team’s findings will make it clear to Americans that “fossil-fuel combustion is playing a key role in air pollution” and that “air pollution is driving a public-health problem that is happening right now, for this generation.”

Read the Harvard Magazine article: A Particulate Problem

Read a Harvard Crimson article about Drew Faust’s letter to Scott Pruitt: In Letter to Pruitt, Faust Condemns Suggested EPA Rule on Scientific Research

Learn more

Scientists say EPA proposal could undermine valid research (Harvard Chan School news)

Nationwide study of U.S. seniors strengthens link between air pollution and premature death (Harvard Chan School release)

Landmark air pollution study turns 20 (Harvard Chan School feature)