Deaths Increase as Air Pollution Levels Rise
"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
"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.