Air Pollution is Bad for You: What I learned at the Air Quality Retreat
1. Air Pollution is bad for you.
One of the ground-breaking studies on evaluating the effects of air pollution compared the rate of hospitalizations in children living near a steel mill in Utah. The steel mill had shut down for over a year, and by comparing the rates of death and hospitalization and a variety of complications of heart and lung diseases, an economist was able to demonstrate that pollution was bad.
(Pope, CA 3rd. Respiratory hospital admissions associated with PM10 pollution in Utah, Salt Lake, and Cache Valleys. Arch Environ Health 1991)
2. Air Pollution, like Climate Change, can be political and controversial
The economist from study above, C. Arden Pope III, noted that this one publication completely changed his career and stirred a lot of controversy. He was attacked and sued, and eventually, his data proven right. Ultimately in 2001, the US Supreme Court upheld that the federal Clean Air Act gives the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the authority to set air-quality standards based on science to protect public health without regard to business costs. In the intervening 20 years since the study, researchers have shown that air pollution increases mortality. Air pollution increases the risk of developing asthma, lung cancer, severe pneumonia, COPD and emphysema. It increases the risk of heart attacks, arrhythmias, congestive heart failure, strokes, vascular dementia and autism, among others. Disturbingly it also seems to have deleterious effects in utero.
3. Air Pollution is bad for your children.
In children, the deleterious effects of exposure to air pollution have life-long consequences. Children exposed to air pollution have decreased lung development, increased asthma risks, decreased IQ, and increased rates of asthma exacerbations and missing school days. Air pollution is also associated with increased infant mortality and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) incidence.
4. Air pollution is difficult to solve.
We are the source of air pollution. There is no controversy around that point. The problem is that the sources – car emissions, industrial emissions, and household emissions – are very challenging to control. Our society is designed around driving to where we need to go, our jobs are dependent on the polluting companies that we work for, and we heat our houses and cook our food. The projections for Salt Lake City are an increase in population from 1.5 million people today to 5 million people by 2050. As one of the people in the audience pointed out, there’s no “clean technology” that will manage that. People make the economic argument that we lose revenue by failing to recruit employees and companies to come to the Salt Lake Valley due to poor air quality, but perhaps our air quality would be worse if we did recruit more people. Proposals to allow free use of public transportation during July and January, our worst air months, would, if fully utilized, reduce emissions by 1-2%, by some accounts. Something needs to be done, everyone agreed, as most of us got into our single occupant cars and drove home.
5. Why study air pollution?
There is much we don’t understand about air pollution. We have focused on PM2.5, the particles in the air that are 2.5microns in size and are the product of combustion. But we don’t know which particles that size are harmful or even if it’s the particles or something they bring along. We do know that the particles enter the blood stream through the lungs, and evidence is building about how the deleterious effects of air pollution such as heart attacks and strokes are caused by these particulates.
But over 20 years ago, Pope was able to show increased hospitalizations with increased air pollution, and that was before anyone was measuring PM2.5. It reminds me of a comment I had heard apropos tobacco smoke exposure research. “I don’t understand why anyone studies tobacco effects or malnutrition. We already know how to treat those problems.” Alas, it is because it is very difficult to solve the problem of air pollution, that we do study it. Some people in my discussion group expressed optimism that if we could figure out the exact particle in air pollution that is the problem, and there were an easy solution, we might be able to affect policy and improve health. This, to me, seems akin to the hopeful thinking that if only we figured out the bad ingredient in our diets we could cure obesity.
6. We have to do something about Air Pollution.
It’s not easy, but it has to be addressed. One of the first documented episodes of air pollution was in London in 1952, when on several December days there was no wind and the massive coal emissions of the time hung over the city. Pictures from the time, during daytime, show thick black smoke hanging in the air. Deaths were 10 times higher during this period. Since then, much has improved about air pollution in London, and many other industrial cities. We must not be paralyzed into inaction by the thought that things are hard to do.