The Alliance For A Clean Environment
~Statistics And Facts In Recent Air Quality News
The hard science just keeps rolling in: air pollution kills and cripples. In the latest study picked up by the national press, scientists from Pittsburgh's Carneie Mellon (publishing in Science magazine) report that more people die from polluted air than from traffic accidents. "There are more than a thousand studies from 20 countries all showing that you can predict a certain death rate based on the amount of pollution," says Devra Lee Davies, one of the study's authors. The deaths are from asthma, heart disease, and lung disorders. Although her study concentrated on just four cities, she is certain the conclusions are applicable worldwide; the data are consistent with a World Health Organization study that estimated that air pollution would cause about 8 million deaths worldwide by 2020.
Studies such as this one--and by such august bodies as the American Cancer Society and Harvard Medical School--offer impeccable hard science and reach the same conclusions. Smoking, body weight, occupational exposures, air temperature and other risk factors have all been factored out. Millions of people as 'data' make the finding comprehensive. And scientists point directly to the causes: Ozone, particulates, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, volatile organic compounds. Our nation's sources, they say, are these: coal-fired power plants, industrial boilers, and gas and diesel-powered vehicles. On bad air days in the country's major cities (the only place scientists look at present), the death rate jumps.
The National Resources Defense Council, working with data from Harvard and the American Cancer Society in a methodology suggested by Dr. Joel Schwartz of the Harvard School of Public Health, states that the elderly and those with heart and lung disease have lifespans shortened by 1 to 2 years from air pollution alone. A Johns Hopkins study of deaths and particulate levels in 20 large cities between 1987 and 1994 (including Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in their data) correlated an extra death for every hundred deaths when the particulate level rose 20 micrograms per meter over 24 hours. (EPA's allowable level of such particles in 24 hours is 150 micrograms per meter, and most cities average much less than that, but the particles are taking their toll of 1 in 100 per 20 micrograms nonetheless. Scientists have not found a level at which the particulates' ill effects do not occur.)
Statistics such as Cedars-Sinai Medical Center findings of 12,000 people per year suffering sudden fatal heart attacks triggered by smog, and 10% of infant mortality caused by particulate pollution (Kaiser, Swiss study of 8 U.S. cities) continue to describe the exact level at which air kills. However, the price of such air on the living is also tremendous. "Total mortality is a relatively crude indicator of population health," says Dr. Samet, chair of Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. "Even though we are using this crude measure, we are still finding an effect." Chronic bronchitis, susceptibility to bacteria and flus, and the myriad diseases which take advantage of depressed immune systems all result from the current levels of air pollution, costing billions of dollars of lost work time.
In short, the current condition of our air is a public health issue. Scientists agree that a lot should be done, and quickly. Dr. Davis of the air pollution/car crash study put this most succinctly. "We hope that policymakers will understand that energy decisions and technology decisions are fundamentally public health decisions," she said. "We're not talking about Buck Rogers-like, futuristic technologies....If the technologies we now have on the shelf were adopted quickly, they would have an immediate effect on public health."
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