PROVO — A massive, global undertaking to probe the key threats to health revealed the overwhelming nexus of breathing contaminants and one's survival.
Tobacco smoking. Indoor air pollution brought on by the burning of solid fuels such as coal and wood to heat a home. Inhaling outdoor contaminants that fill from the air from homes, factories, industries and vehicles.
BYU's Arden Pope III, already celebrated for breakthrough research linking air pollution to health problems with a Geneva Steel study, was one of hundreds of researchers who participated in the Global Burden of Disease Study.
The U.S. component of that probe was released last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association, providing good news to those on the air quality regulation front who have fought to clean up the nation's air.
"The big takeaway is that over the last several decades, we have had some success," Pope said. "The good news is that our efforts to clean up over the last 30 years have resulted in some air quality improvements in the United States."
The study found that from 1990 to 2010, improvements in air quality drove a 35 percent reduction in death and disabilities in the United States.
"We certainly have reduced the exposure over the last few decades, and as a result of that we are seeing the benefits," he said, stressing the study underscores the link between one's health and one's quality of air.
"On the one hand, the evidence is still compelling that air pollution is contributing to adverse health effects," Pope said.
On a global scale, the study examined the top 10 factors that contribute to disease, citing tobacco smoking as the No. 2 risk factor and household air pollution from burning solid fuels as No. 4 because of poor ventilation. Coming in at No. 9 was ambient air pollution.
The distribution of those numbers shifted depending on country and practice — with China, for example, struggling immensely with its air pollution problem and how that is playing out with the population.
"In other parts of the world where air pollution is still very high, the health effects are very high," Pope said.
He also stressed that the study does not ignore other improvements made over the past 20 years when it comes to better diets or the enhanced ability to control cholesterol through the development of pharmaceuticals.
"We know air pollution contributes to ill health, but it is a factor we can modify," Pope said. "In medicine, you are always looking for risk factors that contribute to ill health that we can modify or improve."
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