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Deaths Increase as Air Pollution Levels Rise

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"What this provides is a national perspective on air pollution and its health effects," Samet tells WebMD. "Those who are most at risk are ... likely to be frail and have advanced heart and lung disease. The surprise in this data, and I do think I have been relatively conservative in interpreting the data, is that while we have gotten rid of our smoke stacks, we are still seeing health effects. We are taking the science and putting it together in a way that policy makers can pay attention to and it is important for them to pay attention to this."

 

Samet adds that the problem of particulate pollution is more pressing than global warming. "The contrast with global warming is we will always be deciding what to do based on models and projections and schedules that really exceed our lifespan. Here it is more immediate and we have evidence of effects."

 

"This is an important study because of the extreme thoroughness of their examination and their exhaustive analysis. It should convince some of the doubters," says Morton Lippmann, PhD, a professor of environmental medicine at New York University School of Medicine and a member of an EPA advisory committee on particulates.

 

As a cause of death, particulate pollution "is not in the same category as smoking and traffic accidents but it is bigger than radon in terms of [deaths]. It is analogous to, and larger than, environmental smoke," Lippmann says.

 

EPA officials recognize the threat of particulate pollution. With an annual budget of $62 million, Vandenberg says the National Research Program for Particulate Matter is the agency's "single largest health research project," and that within the EPA, this project receives more funds than do drinking water programs.

 

Jane Q. Koenig, PhD, a professor of environmental medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle, as well as Samet and other experts interviewed by WebMD say that people who need or want to protect themselves from particulate matter pollution can follow the same guidelines that are commonly issued on days when ozone levels are elevated. These include staying indoors when possible and avoiding strenuous outdoor activities, which bring pollutants deeper into the lungs.

 

People with asthma and other breathing disorders should check with their doctor about using their inhalants and other medications more frequently on days when particulate pollution is high.

 

Avoiding areas of congested traffic, shunning wood-burning devices, stopping smoking, and buying a good air-filtering system using a HEPA filter for home use may also help. A diet with fruits and vegetables that are high in antioxidants may thwart the effects of air pollution.

 

But these efforts, unfortunately, are likely to be of limited benefit. "There's not much you can do," says Lippmann. "You can retreat indoors [from] ozone. But fine particles follow you indoors. They come in through cracks. You are getting 80% of the particles indoors that you are getting outdoors. All you can do is press for greater action on the part of the EPA to get the sources of air pollution under control." He adds that people could cut down their use of electricity and use more mass transportation.

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