A national difference in differences analysis of the effect of PM2.5 on annual death rates

Joel Schwartz, Yaguang Wei, Ma'ayan Yitshak-Sade, Qian Di, Francesca Dominici, Antonella Zanobetti

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16 Scopus citations


Many studies have reported that PM2.5 was associated with mortality, but these were criticized for unmeasured confounding, not using causal modeling, and not focusing on changes in exposure and mortality rates. Recent studies have used propensity scores, a causal modeling approach that requires the assumption of no unmeasured confounders. We used differences in differences, a causal modeling approach that focuses on exposure changes, and controls for unmeasured confounders by design to analyze PM2.5 and mortality in the U.S. Medicare population, with 623, 036, 820 person-years of follow-up, and 29, 481, 444 deaths. We expanded the approach by clustering ZIP codes into 32 groups based on racial, behavioral and socioeconomic characteristics, and analyzing each cluster separately. We controlled for multiple time varying confounders within each cluster. A separate analysis examined participants whose exposure was always below 12 μg/m3. We found an increase of 1 μg/m3 in PM2.5 produced an increased risk of dying in that year of 3.85 × 10−4 (95% CI 1.95 × 10−4, 5.76 × 10−4). This corresponds to 14,000 early deaths per year per 1 μg/m3. When restricted to exposures below 12 μg/m3, the increased mortality risk was 4.26 × 10−4 (95% CI 1.43 × 10−4, 7.09 × 10−4). Using a causal modeling approach robust to omitted confounders, we found associations of PM2.5 with increased death rates, including below U.S. and E.U. standards.

Original languageEnglish
Article number110649
JournalEnvironmental Research
StatePublished - Mar 2021


  • Air pollution
  • Causal
  • Difference in differences
  • Mortality
  • PM


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