Each week it seems the scientific case continues to build about the public health dangers of air pollution, underscoring in real life-and-death terms why we are doing what we are doing at the Breathe Project. The drumbeat is growing louder and louder, and in the past month alone, researchers have shown that:
=Prenatal exposure to air pollution is linked to childhood obesity. A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that women in New York City exposed to higher concentrations of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, were more than twice as likely to have children who were obese by age seven compared with women with lower levels of exposure. PAHs are common urban pollutants released by the burning of coal, diesel, oil and gas.
=Emissions from cars, trucks, planes and power plants cause 13,000 premature deaths in the United Kingdom each year—more than from car accidents. The study published by MIT researchers in the journal Environmental Science and Technology found that of the various sources of emissions in the UK, car and truck exhaust was the single greatest contributor to premature death in 2005 (the most recent year for which data were available).
=Long-term exposure to air pollution increases risk of hospitalization for lung and heart disease. A PLoS ONE study by researchers at Harvard School of Public Health was the first to look at the link between the long-term effects of exposure to fine particles and rates of hospital admissions. It found that long-term rates of admissions for pneumonia, heart attack, stroke and diabetes are higher in locations with higher long-term average particle concentrations.
Today, science again reminds us of the vital need for clean air for the health of our families and communities. A study published in the May 16 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association—the most widely circulated medical journal in the world—reports that even a short-term reduction in air pollution exposure can improve your cardiovascular health. To draw this conclusion, the researchers used the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing as their test laboratory.
To protect the health of athletes and spectators during the Olympics, China took major steps to improve air quality in Beijing, which is one of the most polluted cities in the world. The Chinese government spent $17 billion on environmental cleanup, shutting down factories, halting construction project, spraying roads with water to reduce dust and limiting car traffic in the weeks leading up to the Games and throughout the event.
That gave researchers a unique opportunity to compare the health effects of pollution exposure before and after the Games—when pollution levels were high—and during the Olympics, when levels were much lower. “We wanted to take advantage of such a huge intervention and look at what happens to people biologically,” says senior author Junfeng Zhang, a professor of environmental and global health at the University of Southern California.
Zhang and his colleagues studied 125 healthy, young medical residents, testing them twice before the air pollution controls were put in place, twice while the controls were being implemented and twice after the games had ended. Specifically, they measured blood pressure and looked for blood markers linked to clotting and inflammation, known risk factors for heart disease.
They found decreased levels of these biomarkers with reductions in certain air pollutants during the Olympics. After the Games ended, both air pollution and these biomarkers rose to pre-Olympic levels. That suggests high air pollution levels can affect young and healthy hearts in a matter of just a few weeks.
“We believe this is the first major study to clearly demonstrate that changes in air pollution exposure affect cardiovascular disease mechanisms in healthy, young people,” Zhang says.
And what goes for China goes for Pittsburgh, too. In an accompanying editorial to the study, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health report that Asian emissions may account for as much as 20 percent of ground-level pollution in the United States. “It is in the common interest to maintain air quality for the promotion of global health,” they write.
We couldn’t agree more. To find out what you can do to improve the air quality in Pittsburgh and beyond, click here and pledge to take action TODAY for clean air. Your life may just depend on it.