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Dose Response. 2012;10(2):209-18. doi: 10.2203/dose-response.11-040.Cox. Epub 2011 Oct 28.

Hormesis for fine particulate matter (PM 2.5).

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Cox Associates, University of Colorado.


The hypothesis of hormesis - that substances that harm health at high exposures can reduce risks below background at low exposures, e.g., if they activate defenses without overwhelming them - becomes important for practical policy making if it holds for regulated substances. Recently, the U.S. EPA concluded that reductions in ambient concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in air caused trillions of dollars worth of human health benefits for a compliance cost of only about $65 billion per year. This conclusion depends on an unverified assumption of a positive, causal, straight-line relation between PM2.5 concentrations and mortality risks. We review empirical data on PM2.5 and mortality risks (and their precursors, inflammatory responses) and conclude that the PM2.5 concentration-response relation may be J-shaped, rather than linear. This possibility implies that the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendment may well have produced no (or negative) human health benefits, rather than the trillions of dollars worth of reduced mortalities ascribed to it by EPA; and that attempts to achieve further risk-reduction benefits by further reducing PM2.5 concentrations may be counterproductive. This creates a very high value for scientific information that better reveals the true shape of the PM2.5 concentration-response function at and below current ambient levels.


Clean Air Act; PM2.5; Weibull uncertainty distribution; air pollution health effects; hormesis; risk-cost-benefit analysis; uncertainty analysis

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