By Dr. Mallika Marshall

BOSTON (CBS) — There is a lot of talk about climate change but we often forget that the same pollutants warming the earth are also making it hard for us to breathe.  As Dr. Mallika Marshall reports, local researchers, in one of the largest studies of its kind, have found that even relatively clean air can have deadly consequences.

Everyone has to breathe, but the air we breathe, even in the most rural places, could be killing us.  That’s according to a study conducted by Francesca Dominici and her colleagues at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health which examined data on more 60 million senior citizens over a 12 year period.

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Francesca Dominici. (Photo credit: WBZ-TV)

“What we found,” says Dominici, “Is that the level of pollution that we breathe, even when these levels are low and much lower than the safety standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency, can increase the risk of death among our senior citizens.”

African American and low income seniors were found to be at the greatest risk.

Most of the air pollution comes from coal-fired power plants and traffic, but fine particulate matter can travel long distances and when inhaled, penetrates deep into the lungs triggering inflammation.  That can lead to heart and lung disease.

Smokestacks are also said to generate pollutants. (Photo credit: WBZ-TV)

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Dominici says lowering pollution by even tiny amounts could save at least 12,000 deaths a year, but she has real concerns about being able to achieve that with the current White House administration.

“When we are talking about slowing down, going backwards, in terms of the control of greenhouse gas emissions, it’s not only talking about climate change and its devastating effects, but it’s also about not doing anything about  problems that are happening right now in terms of breathing polluted air,” says Dominici.

Heavy traffic is still believed to contribute to the pollution problem. (Photo credit: WBZ-TV)

Dominici, who relied heavily on satellite data from the EPA for this study, says she has already noticed a tightening of the government reigns on the agency.

As for what we can do individually to make a difference in air quality, she hopes we can all rely less heavily on our cars and electricity and pay close attention to environmental issues.

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WBZ NewsRadio 1030’s Tina Gao reports

Dr. Mallika Marshall