Dirty Messages

Kevin Lewis

November 15, 2022

US Embassy air-quality tweets led to global health benefits
Akshaya Jha & Andrea La Nauze
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 1 November 2022 


The World Health Organization estimates that over 90% of the world’s population is exposed to hazardous levels of local air pollution. Air pollution is markedly worse in low- and middle-income countries, yet air-quality monitoring is typically sparse. In 2008, the US Embassy in Beijing began tweeting hourly air-quality information from a newly installed pollution monitor, dramatically improving the information on air quality available to Beijing residents. Since then, the United States has installed over 50 monitors around the world, tweeting real-time reports on air quality in those locations. Using spatially granular measurements of local air pollution from satellite data that span the globe, we employ variation in whether and when US embassies installed monitors to evaluate the impact of air-quality information on pollution. We estimate that embassy monitors led to reductions in fine particulate concentration levels in host countries of 2 to 4 µg/m3. Our central estimate of the annual monetized benefit of the decrease in premature mortality due to this reduction in pollution is $127 million for the median city in 2019. Our findings point to the substantial benefits of improving the availability and salience of air-quality information in low- and middle-income countries.

Can Pollution Cause Poverty? The Effects of Pollution on Educational, Health and Economic Outcomes
Claudia Persico
NBER Working Paper, October 2022


Although pollution is widespread, there is little evidence about how it might harm children’s long run outcomes. Using the detailed, geocoded data that follows national representative cohorts of children born to the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth respondents over time, I compare siblings who were gestating before versus after a Toxic Release Inventory site opened or closed within one mile of their home. I find that children who were exposed prenatally to industrial pollution have lower wages, are more likely to be in poverty as adults, have fewer years of completed education, and are less likely to graduate high school.

Air Pollution and Economic Opportunity in the United States
Jonathan Colmer, John Voorheis & Brennan Williams
University of Virginia Working Paper, July 2022 


Combining 36 years of satellite derived PM2.5 concentrations with individual-level administrative data provided by the U.S. Census Bureau and Internal Revenue Service (IRS), we provide new evidence on the important role that disparities in air pollution exposure play in shaping broader patterns of economic opportunity and inequality in the United States. We first document that early-life exposure to particulate matter is one of the top five predictors of upward mobility in the United States. Second, we exploit regulation-induced reductions in pollution exposure from the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments to produce new age-specific estimates of pollution-earnings relationship. Combined with individual-level measures of pollution exposure during early childhood, we calculate that disparities in air pollution can account for 17-26 percent of the Black-White earnings gap, 5-27 percent of the Hispanic-White earnings gap, and 6-20 percent of the average neighborhood-earnings effect (Chetty and Hendren, 2018; Chetty, Hendren, and Katz, 2016). Collectively, our findings indicate that environmental inequality is an important contributor to observed patterns of racial economic disparities, income inequality and economic opportunity in the United States.

Air Quality and Suicide
Claudia Persico & Dave Marcotte
NBER Working Paper, November 2022 


We conduct the first-ever large-scale study of the relationship between air pollution and suicide using detailed cause of death data from all death certificates in the U.S. between 2003 and 2010. Using wind direction as an instrument for daily pollution exposure, we find that a 1 μg/m3 increase in daily PM2.5 is associated with a 0.49% increase in daily suicides and 0.171 more suicide-related hospitalizations (a 50% increase). Estimates using 2SLS are larger and more robust, suggesting a bias towards zero arising from measurement error. Event study estimates further illustrate that contemporaneous pollution exposure matters more than exposure to pollution in previous weeks.

Environmental Pollution and Authoritarian Politics
Carlo Horz, Moritz Marbach & Christoph Steinert
Journal of Politics, forthcoming 


Authoritarian rulers fend off revolutions by stimulating the economy. However, expanding the economy can also increase environmental pollution. If citizens value clean air and water, worsening pollution has the potential to galvanize large segments of the society against the regime — which increases the risk of a revolution. While the literature has documented how concerns over the environment upend politics in democracies, we know relatively little about the effects of these concerns in authoritarian regimes. We analyze environmental pollution as an overlooked threat to authoritarian rulers. Using unique data from Communist East Germany and exploiting variation in thermal inversions to instrument for pollution levels, we find that pollution causes both individual and collective expressions of regime dissatisfaction. Our findings suggest that rulers face a trade-off between growing the economy and worsening pollution.

First lead, now no bed? The unintended impacts of lead abatement laws on eviction
Luke Fesko
Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, forthcoming


Lead paint in old houses is the leading cause of lead poisoning in children under 6 today. To combat this problem, several states have passed lead abatement laws, forcing landlords to remove lead in the homes they rent if tenants have children under the age of 6. However, these laws have unintended consequences, causing landlords to evict tenants rather than abate lead. I use a difference-in-differences approach while employing various model specifications with various fixed effects and sets of controls to examine the impact of Ohio’s 2003 lead abatement law on eviction rates. Using newly collected data from the Eviction Lab at Princeton University, I find that the passage of Ohio’s lead abatement law sharply increased targeted evictions. Due to the law’s passage, the average census district in Ohio faced an increased eviction rate of roughly 0.457 points, corresponding to an additional 13.93 evictions a year. These impacts are highly statistically significant, sizeable, and economically meaningful, indicating that policy makers should incorporate distributional consequences when designing future lead abatement laws in order to avoid unintended consequences and ensure equitable outcomes.

A Hazard Analysis of Federal Permitting Under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970
Michael Bennon, Daniel De La Hormaza & Richard Geddes
Stanford Working Paper, September 2021


The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1970 requires federal agencies to assess the environmental impact of proposed major federal actions. NEPA affects delivery of an array of infrastructure including the construction of roads, bridges, highways, airports, water systems, broadband, both conventional and renewable energy generation and distribution, electricity transmission, and management activities on public lands. NEPA requires the completion of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for environmentally impactful federal actions. An EIS must be completed before the government acts and is a significant undertaking. For infrastructure projects this can entail significant delays which increase final costs. A typical NEPA review now takes about four and one-half years and is over 600 pages long. Some EIS’s take over a decade to complete. We provide the first detailed analysis of project approval times under NEPA by examining 1,269 EIS permitting processes. We analyze empirically the well-defined interval from Notice of Intent to file (NOI) to Record of Decision (ROD). We use Cox proportional hazard to estimate the impact of several factors on EIS duration. Those factors comprise permits featuring major construction, those including private investment, those for projects located in states with restrictive environmental laws, those using a federal permitting “dashboard,” and those publishing a Supplemental EIS prior to the ROD but after completing a final EIS. We find that privately financed projects receive faster permitting, while projects involving major construction, those undertaken in restrictive states, and those utilizing the federal permitting dashboard, face slower permitting times. We explore links between EIS page counts and permitting time. Greater EIS page counts are associated with longer permitting times. We conclude by examining EIS completion during economic stimulus programs such as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), as well as the frequency of EIS completion by the federal government itself.

Does short-term, airborne lead exposure during pregnancy affect birth outcomes? Quasi-experimental evidence from NASCAR’s deleading policy
Linda Bui et al.
Environment International, August 2022 

Methods: We use quasi-experimental variation in airborne lead exposure during pregnancy, based on NASCAR’s deleading of racing fuel in 2007, in a difference-in-differences model, to estimate the effect of deleading on the birth outcomes of all live births (n = 147,673) in the Charlotte-Concord-Gastonia Metropolitan Statistical Area between 2004 and 2009.

Results: After deleading, children born to mothers residing <4000 m of Charlotte Motor Speedway (relative to those residing >10,000 m) experienced an average increase in birthweight (BW) of 102.50 g [P < 0.001]. The probability of low birthweight (LBW) declined by 0.045 [P = 0.001], preterm (PRE) births by 0.03 [P = 0.04], and small for gestational age (SGA) by 0.04 [P = 0.002]. We find that benefits accrue primarily in preterm LBW and SGA babies, and from decreased lead exposure in the first trimester.

An exploratory study on the migration-pattern impact of coal dust in the US
Richard Cebula & Christopher Duquette
Applied Economics, forthcoming 


In this exploratory study, it is observed that there is a potentially important dimension of the quality of life that has been effectively ignored in prior migration studies in the U.S.: air quality as reflected by the presence of coal dust per se. Accordingly, it is hypothesized in this study that an elevated presence of coal dust in close proximity to a prospective residence will act to discourage in-migration (both net in-migration and gross in-migration) because of the greater threat of adverse health impacts and because of elevated expected and/or actual pure economic costs per se, for example, deterioration of one’s physical assets, including automobile(s) and housing, that accompany close proximity to elevated airborne coal dust. There is strong empirical support for this ‘coal dust/in-migration hypothesis’.


from the


A weekly newsletter with free essays from past issues of National Affairs and The Public Interest that shed light on the week's pressing issues.


to your National Affairs subscriber account.

Already a subscriber? Activate your account.


Unlimited access to intelligent essays on the nation’s affairs.

Subscribe to National Affairs.