Bad Air Bad Health

Tuesday, February 21, 2012 - 11:11am

New studies link poor air quality to health problems.

Three new studies that underscore the link between bad air quality and significant health risks such as stroke, heart attacks and dementia suggest there is no safe level of air pollution and that more needs to be done to control the problem.

While the effects of air pollution have long been blamed for increased incidences of heart disease, the new scientific research unveiled greater risks of stroke, heart attack and cognitive degeneration - with long-term exposure to pollution said to "age" the mind by as many as two years.

Dr. Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians For a Healthy Environment, said the studies should be a wake-up call for residents and public policy makers to get serious about the grave effects of air pollution on the everyday lives of Utahns.

"We are seeing that most of the health effects of air pollution do not have a threshold," he said. "The smallest amount of air pollution will have a corresponding amount of health impact. There is no such thing as an exposure of air pollution that will not affect you."

Two of the studies were published Monday in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

Brown University's Gregory A. Wellenius, an associate professor of epidemiology, was lead author of a study that looked at 1,705 Boston-area patients hospitalized for stroke.

When controlling for other factors such as hypertension, the study found that the risk of stroke jumped 34 percent on days when traffic pollutants were classified by federal regulators as "moderate," defined as a minimal danger to health.

"These results suggest that exposure to PM2.5 levels generally considered safe by the US EPA increase the risk of (stroke onset) within hours of exposure," the study concluded. PM2.5 is fine particulate matter 2.5 micrometers or smaller.

The study looked at a hospital's admission records for stroke victims from 1999 to 2008 and cross-checked them against the exact time of the medical incident to the EPA's air quality index in the hours and days preceding each event.

The increase in risk, the study found, was greatest within 12 to 14 hours of exposure to the particulate matter and strongly associated with traffic-related pollution.

Another study published in the same journal tracked nearly 20,000 U.S. women ages 71 to 80 for about a decade.

It found that long-term exposure to air pollution "typically experienced by many individuals in the United States is associated with significantly worse cognitive decline in older women."

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