A recent Deseret News headline reads, “Study: Bad air may trigger serious heart attacks” (Nov. 15). New research from Utah hospitals shows that even air pollution we label “moderate” can trigger the most serious type of heart attack. This new research should be viewed in proper context. Hundreds of medical studies over the past 15 years have revealed virtually the same thing, and the studies exposing the rest of pollution’s broad-based health consequences number in the thousands. Our group of physicians has been calling attention to this for over eight years.
Here’s a take-home message. Pollution is not just a problem during our thick winter inversions, as this study clearly showed. Even a little air pollution does a little harm to many, if not all of us, and can do much harm to those at high risk. Air pollution makes people sick in multiple ways. All the major organs are affected. It can be lethal by causing heart attacks, strokes, pneumonia, cancer and multiple other maladies, beginning with intrauterine development and impairment of the basic building blocks of life, the chromosomes.
The World Health Organization indicates that about 1 in every 8 deaths worldwide is due to air pollution, and they aren’t all in New Delhi or Shanghai. Statistics from the American Heart Association extrapolated to Utah indicate between 1,000 and 2,000 Utahns die every year from air pollution. Even for people who feel totally healthy, their lives are shortened a bit by the air pollution they breathe because it accelerates the aging process.
Another obvious, undeniable, albeit inconvenient, take-home message — we must drive less and we need more energy-efficient buildings and homes, more clean energy and less dependency on fossil fuels. We need smarter planning for future growth and less urban sprawl.
Here’s perhaps a less obvious, but equally undeniable, and even more inconvenient take-home message.
Most state and federal regulatory schemes assume everyone in the community breathes the same pollution, therefore facing the same health risk. But on a supposedly “green” day for the community at large, there can be pockets of pollution that would make Beijing blush. A California study showed some people breathe 2,500 times more pollution than other people in the same monitoring zone. If you live near a gravel pit, you may be subjected to a perpetual mist of toxic dust. If you live near an oil refinery you likely have higher levels of hazardous chemicals in your blood. If you live near a freeway you will be inhaling much more ultra-fine pollution than everyone else. Many people are taking a real “hit for the team” by living near pollution sources that provide everyone else a convenience.
As we enter the winter season, many people will also be taking a real “hit from their neighbors,” homeowners who crank up wood stoves and fireplaces. Research has shown that if you are downwind of a neighbor or restaurant that burns wood, you may be inhaling pollution levels up to 100 times greater than what is measured at the nearest monitoring station. Other research shows that most of that pollution can penetrate inside your home and stay there long after a storm cleans out the air in the valley.
Furthermore, not all pollution is created equal. Wood smoke is by far the most toxic type of pollution that most people ever breathe, much more biologically reactive than secondhand cigarette smoke. While we have widely adopted ordinances to protect people from secondhand cigarette smoke, protections from secondhand wood smoke were actually rolled back last year by the Legislature.
Legislators are fond of saying that our air pollution has improved over the years, and there is some truth in that. But for people whose neighbors burn wood, the Legislature actually made their lives worse and put them at greater risk. As one person recently emailed us, “My neighbor’s smoke gets in my house and makes my heart race. I am afraid of a heart attack.” In view of this new Utah research, that is a legitimate fear. We all deserve protection from secondhand wood smoke.
Dr. Brian Moench is president of the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.